The Current

Trump's 'space force' isn't a new idea. We've been doing that for decades, say experts

Donald Trump's idea of a "space force" isn't as outrageous as it sounds. Experts say that governments have been studying the prospect of conflict in space for decades.
Military conflict in space probably won't look like this scene from Star Wars: The Last Jedi any time soon, but experts say it will become increasingly relevant in the near future. (Walt Disney Studios)

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U.S. President Donald Trump recently touted the creation of a "space force," but one of Canada's most prominent science-fiction writers says it's by no means a new idea.

Robert J. Sawyer, winner of the Hugo and Nebula awards, says the conversation dates back to the late 1950s, when the space race became a proxy conflict for the Cold War.

"[The Soviets] had a space station that was essentially armed with a gatling gun, with a high-speed machine gun, in case any foreign power tried to board their space station," he says, referring to Salyut 3, a station briefly in orbit in the 1970s.

"The Soviets have always sent their cosmonauts up with pistols," he added — ostensibly so they could defend themselves if they landed back on Earth in hostile territory.

"Armed astronauts in space is not a new idea, it has been done for decades."

U.S. President Donald Trump says 'space is a war-fighting domain' while addressing troops at the Marine Corps Air Station Miramar, in San Diego, on March 13. (The Associated Press)

Trump made his comments while addressing marines in California last week, but he's not the first leader to imagine a battlefield among the stars.

Ronald Reagan launched his Strategic Defence Initiative, dubbed Star Wars, back in 1983, as a way to defend against Soviet missiles.

Brian Weeden, director of program planning for the Secure World Foundation, says that the idea of what a space force might look like has changed over the years.

"There have been parts of the U.S. military that have been involved in space ever since the beginning of the space age, back in the early 1950s," says Weeden.

Today, these are mainly the people who fly and control the country's satellites, but keep their feet firmly on the ground.

Rather than a vision of wars taking place in space, the focus is how space can be used to influence wars and conflicts here on Earth.

Rival nations' satellites, and the strategic advantages they may offer, are of particular interest.

The Soviets have always sent their cosmonauts up with pistols.... Armed astronauts in space is not a new idea.- Robert J. Sawyer

To date, he says, no satellite has been destroyed in a military attack. But the "dramatic long-term effects" of a scenario like that are worth taking seriously.

"GPS is a great example of something we all use every single day ... and if something were to happen to that, that would be a pretty huge loss, which would have massive repercussions for transportation, and for other industries," says Weeden.

"A lot of the data we use to predict weather and serious natural disasters comes from satellites — the loss of those satellites would be huge."

A physical assault would also create large amounts of debris in orbit, which could then damage other satellites and escalate tensions.

But there have been examples of non-physical, jamming attacks on satellies.

"There have been credible reports from Ukraine and from Syria of Russians deploying GPS jamming for use on the battlefield," he says.

A grey aircraft, which looks similar to a normal plane except for a lack of windows near the nose, flies over brown, mountainous terrain.
Military drones rely on satellites to function, which would make those satellites a target during times of conflict. (Lt.-Col. Leslie Pratt/U.S. air force/The Associated Press)

The space race could heat up again

Our culture has sanitized conflict in space, Sawyer says, to the point where we now think of it as fun.

Sci-fi warfare through the lens of pop culture rarely includes "all the disease, horror maiming [and] agony that goes with ground-based war," he says.

"[It] makes it seem like it's kind of fun, kind of like a videogame," he says, "rather than it be yet another place where young men and women will die, usually in pursuit of ends that are not at all good for anybody."

Up to now, conflicts beyond our atmosphere have been the stuff of sci-fi — but that could change as extra-terrestrial industries begin to take shape.

"When we start finding valuable resources and things on Mars, on the moon, in the asteroid belt, people will very much want to stake claims," says Sawyer.

Listen to the full conversation — which includes an interview with Laura Grego from the Union of Concerned Scientists, about the legality of space — at the top of this page.

This segment was produced by The Current's Rosa Kim.