Space Force: Power and the Extraterrestrial


This post is by Katharine Hall, Lecturer in Politics & International Relations, QMUL Online.

Depending on your age, the US Space Force might bring to mind images of The Expanse, Battlestar Galactica, Star Trek…or Spaceballs. President Trump’s announcement in the summer 2018 of his desire to create Space Force as a new branch of the military was met with quite a bit of ridicule.

Perhaps the idea of warfighters in space seems so futuristic to be laughable. Space Force, however, was officially created last month in December 2019. Run through the Air Force, it is intended to provide protection and coordinate strategies for US technologies and weapons in space. 

While not deploying troops across the galaxy, the launch of Space Force indicates expanding geographies of force and power in US imaginations of foreign policy and international relations. As Trump said in his December speech, “The Space Force will help us deter aggression and control the ultimate high ground.”

Both in plan and in response, the launch of Space Force has historical precedent – expansion and outer space are key themes of US military R&D throughout the 20th century. Trump’s sixth service draws perhaps the closest parallels, however, to President Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative anti-missile program. Nicknamed “Star Wars” (and with similar criticisms as Space Force), SDI was announced by Reagan in 1983, and it is often pointed to as an overly fantastical Cold War technology program that never made it past the concept phase.

While maybe lacking in feasibility, Star Wars fit within a broader set of efforts to utilize space-based technologies for both weapons development and surveillance – which did not stop with the end of SDI. Outer space remained (and continues to be) a frontier marking potential US military growth and capabilities and a geography supporting concepts like netwar and cyberwar.

Space Force then sits within traditions of US military, security, and foreign policy and serves as a reminder of how the United States imagines itself projecting force globally (and beyond). It also raises questions about the study of international relations – and the role that (outer) space has in shaping discourses on war and security.

Outer space is a relatively under-theorized area of international relations with some notable exceptions that might challenge us to think more broadly about the realms in which we see international relations being conducted. For example, Raymond Duvall and John Havercroft look at orbital space and its weaponization and the ways that this is creating new forms of international politics, power, and sovereignty. These themes have been explored further in an edited volume seeking to put outer space front and center in studies of international relations.

These efforts connect to a broader desire to expand and interrogate our understandings of territory and power, to develop concepts like vertical geopolitics that help us see how international politics operates across multiple realms and scales.

And this can also extend to science fiction. The idea of Space Force, even if in reality not putting troops in space, elicits strong reaction in part because of the power our imaginations of the future have in shaping our political realities. Turning to science fiction – to shows like Battlestar Galactica – gives us another arena to study international relations.

We explore a range of issues relating to US Foreign Policy, including how and by whom it is made, in Queen Mary Online's MA in International Relations module, ‘Themes And Cases in US Foreign Policy’.

Learn more about the International Relations MA  🡪

Topics: MA international relations, US foreign policy, Space Force

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