As the White House and Congress debate whether to establish a “Space Force” within the Defense Department, some believe a more effective approach is to develop an organization analogous to the Coast Guard.
In a panel discussion at the International Space Development Conference here May 27, former government officials and other experts suggested a “Space Guard” could be a more effective tool in dealing with space security issues in an era where there are more countries, and more companies, operating in Earth orbit.
“I think it’s important for us to realize that we have not simply force projection in question, or defensive capabilities against aggression,” said Greg Autry, a professor at the University of Southern California Marshall School of Business who served on the NASA transition team for the Trump administration. “We also have issues of how do we simply enforce compliance with laws we’re going to pass on on-orbit—and potentially beyond that—activities in space.
A “Space Guard,” modeled on the U.S. Coast Guard, could be a solution to that issue. “To me, I think this is actually a much bigger problem than just talking about national security space,” said George Nield, the former associate administrator for commercial space transportation at the Federal Aviation Administration. “There is, today, no single department or agency that is charged with holistically managing U.S. interests in space.”
Efforts like the reconstituted National Space Council and, which directs the Commerce Department to consolidate its various space responsibilities into a “one-stop shop” office, help in that effort, he argued, but alone aren’t sufficient. It also ignores new initiatives, he added, from dealing with orbital debris to a future “search and rescue” capability.
Nield said a “reasonable option” would be to create a Space Guard modeled on the Coast Guard. Its mission, he said, would be to “enhance the safety of space operations and preserve the space environment.” That Space Guard, he said, would be part of a civilian department during peacetime, but integrated into Defense Department during wartime. He added later that ability to be placed under the Pentagon’s control could eliminate the need for either a separate Space Force or a “Space Corps” within the Air Force.
A Space Guard could have a policing duty not typically assigned to militaries, said Rand Simberg, a former engineer and longtime commentator on space policy issues. However, he cautioned that the analogy to the Coast Guard is not perfect. “Sea is not space. Maritime law doesn’t project directly into outer space because that’s not the way the Outer Space Treaty is written,” he said. Likewise, he noted, maritime salvage laws don’t apply to space objects, a challenge for orbital debris removal efforts.
Nield said a Space Guard would be a mix of existing and new capabilities. “We want to do a more efficient job of what is being done today across several different departments and agencies,” he said. “And then there are all these potentially new responsibilities, whether it is search and rescue, inspection, other things that are not really being handled today.”
The idea of a Space Guard or other organization isn’t new but is gaining traction. “I don’t think it’s ever been this serious,” said Michael Laine, an entrepreneur and former Marine. He tended to lean in favor of a more military organization, like a Space Corps, though, although with some kind of multinational organization to handle policing
If I were to wave my magic wand, it would be something like an international police force of some sort, and a U.S. military Space Corps,” he said. “I think there’s almost no way to not have an international policing-style organization, but for U.S. national interests I think that the Space Corps must be out there, in a military perspective, guarding U.S. interests.”
None of the panelists, though, advocated for keeping space security responsibilities with the Air Force. “If the Air Force thinks that the status quo is okay, that kind of proves the case that it’s not,” Laine said. “The Air Force is fundamentally unequipped to manage space in this new environment.”
“Every once in a while, it can be helpful to break some china, break some eggs, and start fresh,” said Nield. “Having a new start can be exciting and motivating.”