Why The US Needs A ‘Coast Guard’ In Space – Analysis


The idea of a “Space Guard”, first conceived of by the US Air Force officer Cynthia A.S. McKinley and later expounded on by space journalist James C. Bennett, is back in fashion.

By Michael R. Sinclair

Last week, tech journalist Ramin Skibba wrote an op-ed for The Hill where he analogised some of the challenges of 21st century space exploration to those faced in the maritime environment. [1] Skibba wrote that the United States is “in dire need of a single national organisation dedicated to authorising and regulating activities in orbit and beyond.” [2] If we are to apply the maritime analogy to space governance as Skibba suggests, it only makes sense to look to the US Coast Guard as a model for that agency.

The idea of a “Space Guard”, first conceived of by the US Air Force officer Cynthia A.S. McKinley [3] and later expounded on by space journalist James C. Bennett [4], is back in fashion. [5] A Space Guard, modeled after the Coast Guard is so appealing because if such an agency were truly a Coast Guard analogue, it would be vested with nearly every regulatory, management, and operating authority that the United States would need for the effective governance of space. [6]

The American Space Commerce Free Enterprise Act recently cleared the House of Representatives. [7] The Act seeks to improve on the status quo of commercial space regulation where the FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation, the Department of Commerce’s Office of Space Commerce (OSC), NASA, and in some cases the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, the Federal Communications Commission and the US Air Force all have roles to play in regulating or providing oversight for US commercial space launches and activity. This hodgepodge of multiple regulatory agencies is inefficient, creates delay, and prevents America from acting with unity of purpose in space. The Act seeks to fix this by creating a “one stop shop” in the Department of Commerce to better facilitate and ostensibly regulate space commerce. [8]

Modifying the OSC in this manner is insufficient because as conceived, it would not adequately balance any other governmental equities beyond facilitating commerce. Further, the enhanced OSC lacks both true regulatory teeth and a corresponding operational capability to provide oversight and where necessary enforce what should be a comprehensive, statutorily-based regulatory scheme intended to protect Americans on the way to, in, and returning from space; protect America from all hazards and threats delivered from space and space activities; and to protect space itself. [9]

President Donald Trump also seems to have a vision of the future of US space activity. He recently delivered a speech, once again [10] calling for the creation of a US Space Corps or a Space Force to advance US space interests. [11] Congress has pursued similar ideas in the past. [12] But much like a singularly focused OSC without sufficient regulatory bite is a suboptimal solution to meet the challenges posed by the coming space boom, a single-mission, defense-focused space agency like a Space Corps could create more issues that it solves.

A purely defence focused agency would no doubt spur a space arms race from nations like China [13] and Russia, [14] both ever-jockeying rivals of the US who are both fielding more advanced space capabilities seemingly every day. [15] And if a Space Corps is like its single-mission DoD sister services, it likely would not be vested with the right authorities necessary to balance the challenges posed by commercial space against the amazing opportunities commercial space innovation provides.

The US would instead be better served by establishing a multi-mission agency like the Coast Guard, a “Space Guard,” that has the authority and capabilities to engage in both “prevention” and “response” governance activities, to further effective management across the entire space domain. Prevention authorities are essentially regulatory authorities and response authorities are best categorised as operational authorities and both are necessary for effective governance.

As it stands, the enhanced OSC would have one, prevention, while the Space Force or Space Corps would have a very narrow slice — defense operations, of the other. A Space Guard would optimally have both and if it were modeled on the Coast Guard, its response authorities would include more than just defense operations. Furthermore, Coast Guard prevention and response officers can and often do rely on these overlapping and mutually supportive sources of authority to execute their respective missions. It is in part the interdependent nature of these authorities that makes the Coast Guard so effective because as noted in the Coast Guard’s foundational document, Publication 1, “[T]he interrelated nature of the Coast Guard’s missions and culture of adaptability provides the Service with the ability to rapidly shift from one mission to another as national priorities demand” across the entirety of the maritime domain. [16]

By mirroring the organisational structure and the total domain regulatory and operational reach of the Coast Guard, a Space Guard would be better able to provide launch-to-orbit-to-landing safety and environmental regulatory oversight by leveraging expertise from a common pool of experienced operators and scarce technical specialists who could more easily coordinate if they were housed within the same organisational entity. And given the right underlying statutory authority, it could also help address existing authorities and capabilities gaps like the absence of domestic authorisation for in-space search and rescue of distressed spacefarers and protection of the planet and space from harmful contamination, both of which are current US international law obligations and both of which will no doubt gain increasing import as more and more private U.S. actors take to the stars. Neither in-space search and rescue nor “planetary protection” has an underlying basis in US domestic law and therefore, no US agency is responsible for executing or overseeing those activities in furtherance of US interests. The Coast Guard’s broad search and rescue statute marine environmental protection authorities could provide a helpful starting point to draft space-based analogues that would begin closing these gaps at the front end of the coming space boom.

Further, there is a great need for space mobility management as a way to mitigate the growing issue of “space junk” clogging valuable real estate and threatening the safe operation of space activity in both Low Earth Orbit (LEO) and the Geo-Stationary Orbit (GSO). Coast Guard mobility authorities like its aids-to-navigation, vessel traffic management, and icebreaking mission sets may also provide helpful templates with which to base space analogues.

Finally, a multi-mission space governance agency, with the ability and authority to field lightly armed vessels, much like the Coast Guard fields, may provide a helpful counter to what many believe is the inevitability of bad actors such as pirates or terrorists capitalising on the space domain. Such an agency operating under the idea that it is at its core, a humanitarian organization focused on rescue and protection of all space actors, may be sufficiently de-escalatory so as to help avoid the aforementioned arms race in space.

If the US does not establish a governance structure and an agency to manage a coherent and unified space policy, it will be private actors that set the norms and conditions for future space operations, and they will do so relatively unchecked, with their own motives driving them. A Space Guard, organised like the multi-mission Coast Guard and wielding broad (in both depth and breadth), Coast Guard-like, total domain regulatory and operational authority, and vested with the capability and capacity to exercise that authority, may be just what the United States needs to lead the way into 21st century space governance.

The views presented in this analysis do not reflect those of the United States Coast Guard or the Department. For a more in depth analysis on the prospects of a coast guard for space, please see a draft of his forthcoming paper available here, which would not exist but for the unwavering support from his two space law professors, Steve Mirmina and Chris Johnson.


[1] Ramin Skibba, Space, like the oceans, is not too big to become polluted or for ships to engage in conflict, thehill.com (May 15, 2018 5:00 PM),

[2] Id.

[3] See Cynthia A. S. McKinley, The Guardians of Space, Aerospace Power Journal 44 (Spring 2000) (dubbing the “Space Guard”).

[4] James C. Bennett, Proposing a “Coast Guard” for Space, the newatlantis.com 50 (2011), (arguing some of the public policy reasons behind establishing a Space Coast Guard vice a Space Corps).

[5] E.g., Michael Sinclair, The US Needs A “Coast Guard” For Space: Semper Paratus Exteriores Spatium, breakingdefense.com, (May 21, 2018 4:01 AM); see also Brandt Pasco, Trump’s Space Force should be more Coast Guard than Marines, thehill.com (May 10, 2018 2:30 PM).

[6] See e.g., Sinclair, supra note 6; see generally, 14 U.S.C. (2017); 46 U.S.C. (2017); 33 U.S.C.A. (2017).

[7] See American Space Commerce Free Enterprise Act, H.R. 2809, 115th Cong. (2018); H.R. Rep. No. 115-649 (2018).

[8] Id.

[9] See generally, Coast Guard Publication 1.0 Doctrine for the U.S. Coast Guard 5 (February 2014), [hereinafter Pub. 1].

[10] See Zachary Cohen, Trump pushes idea of adding “Space Force” to US military, cnn.com (May 1, 2018 6:25 PM); John Wagner, Trump raises the specter of a Space Force as he congratulates Army’s football team, washingtonpost.com (May 1, 2018 1:36 PM).

[11] See AP, Star Wars? President Trump Proposes Military Space Force, nytimes.com (Mar. 13, 2018 8:09 PM), [hereinafter AP, Star Wars?] Christiano Lima, Trump boosts “space force” idea, says U.S. will reach Mars “very soon,” politico.com (Mar. 13, 2018 6:28 PM).

[12] See e.g., Russell Berman, Does the U.S. Military Need a Space Corps, theatlantic.com (Aug. 8, 2017); Emily Cochrane, Forces Align Against a New Military Branch to “Win Wars” in Space, mobile.nytimes.com (July 26, 2017); but see Zachary Cohen, Lawmakers scrap “Space Corps” proposal, cnn.com (Nov. 8, 2017).

[13] See Sandra Erwin, In space and cyber, China is closing in on the United States, spacenews.com (Jan. 10, 2018).

[14] See Anatoly Zak, This Was a Huge Week for the NASA-Russia Lunar Space Station and the Future of Spaceflight, popularmechanics.com (Jan. 23, 2018).

[15] See Anjana Ahuja, The global technopolitics of space exploration, ft.com (Feb. 9, 2018); Nyshka Chandran, Russia and China are developing “destructive” space weapons, US intelligence warns, cnbc.com (Feb. 14, 2018 1:15 PM).

[16] See Pub. 1, supra note 10 at 1.

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