Laugh at Trump's 'space force' all you want — it's something Canada should seriously consider

Canada would hardly be ushering in a new era of space weaponization or militarization. There are many reasons why it should consider a national space force.

A space force would improve the efficiency of military space operations and consolidate space expertise

Canada would hardly be ushering in a new era of space weaponization or militarization. There are many reasons why it should consider a national space force. (Canadian Space Agency)

The proposal by U.S. President Donald Trump to create a national "space force" has garnered a bemused response from observers across the globe. But as highlighted in a recent CBC article, not everyone is laughing. Indeed, there are some who think Canada should consider its own space force. We are among them.

While it might conjure up images of Star Wars, the concept of a space force is not as fantastical — nor original — as one might think. There may be sensible reasons for Canada to develop a separate entity within the armed forces that is responsible for space.

President Trump did not come up with this idea himself: the role of an independent space force has been debated in Congress for the past two decades. Already in 1997, U.S. Air Force Chief of Staff Ron Fogleman outlined a vision to "transition from an air force to an air and space force," but it has taken until now for the vision to gain traction. Currently, U.S. Air Force Space Command provides most of the world's information about what's in orbit, which is necessary for avoiding collisions in space, and for tracking the behaviour of allies and potential adversaries in space.

The debate has been whether this responsibility should remain with the U.S. Air Force or with a separate entity under the U.S. government.

Threats in space

Satellites provide services essential to our daily lives: GPS, internet and telecommunications, weather and climate tracking, international banking and much more. Since we are so dependent on space technologies, we have to be ready to deal with threats in space. Those threats can come in the form of accidental collisions, resulting from the high-speed traffic of nearly two thousand operational satellites and hundreds of thousands of pieces of debris. They can also be the result of nefarious activities, such as interference with or disabling of a satellite.

In its recent defence policy document, "Strong, Secure, and Engaged" Canada outlined a priority to "[d]efend and protect military space capabilities" and to promote the "peaceful use of space."

Canada, like the U.S., is party to the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, which states that international law — including the prohibition on the use of force — applies in outer space, and that the moon and "other celestial bodies" shall be used exclusively for peaceful purposes.

Given this legal obligation, it may seem contradictory to consider a space force to "defend and protect" in space. Indeed, in the above-mentioned CBC article, NDP defence critic Randall Garrison stated that "New Democrats are fundamentally opposed to the militarization of space and believe that space should only be used by all of humanity for peaceful purposes."

While the signal it sends internationally may be of concern, the creation of a space force would not necessarily mean the onset of the militarization and weaponization of space.

In fact, space has been militarized since the beginning of the Space Age, with the launch of Sputnik I in 1957 by the Soviet Union, a clear projection of power in space during the Cold War. Since then, satellites have been routinely used for communication, reconnaissance and intelligence operations. Since the First Gulf War, which has been described as the "First Space  War," modern, information-centric militaries including Canada have become dependent on space systems.

The space race and Sputnik in 1957

28 days ago
Duration 6:00
To the ear, the satellite sounds like just a random series of high-pitched beeps. But to scientists and politicians everywhere, it bears much greater importance. Aired on CBC Radio News on Oct. 4, 1957.

Space weaponization is a simple concept, but it has evolved over the recent decades into a complex notion. Both superpowers during the Cold War developed and tested anti-satellite weapons. In the last decade, both China and the U.S. have destroyed one of their own defunct satellites with missiles, understood largely to be anti-satellite weapons tests. Today, jamming or spoofing satellite signals, and hacking into satellite operations are also threats to the security of satellite systems.

Canada therefore would hardly be ushering in a new era of space weaponization or militarization. So why should it consider its own space force?

Firstly, Canada's dependence on satellites compels us to put human and financial resources into dedicated corps. Under the current political climate and for reasons of national security, it would not be wise to depend upon a U.S. space force to protect us.

Secondly, a space force would solve the problem that space expertise is scattered across the services and intelligence agencies. In other words, the "nuts and bolts" of what make up Canada's military space community would be better directed with a national space force.

Thirdly, a national space force would increase the efficiency of military space operations. It would be part of a more coordinated approach to the overall authority and responsibility for national space security activities. Currently the lines of communication and organisational responsibilities are not straightforward and complicated further by the everyday Canadians' lack of awareness of the criticality of the space domain.

What is required first and foremost, however, is a national space policy, something that the U.S. has had for decades, and which Canada lacks. Although high level discussions are taking place in Canada, there remain obstacles in the formulation of a whole-of-government approach to space security. Ideally, this would need to be resolved before a national space force could be created.

This column is part of CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read our FAQ.


Kiernan McClelland is a PhD Candidate at Carleton University, and policy analyst at Space Strategies Consulting Ltd. Dr. Cassandra Steer is former Executive Director of the McGill Centre for Research in Air and Space Law, and a consultant with Space Strategies Consulting Ltd.