The last successful cavalry charge in military history took place in Poland on March 1, 1945—more than a decade before the first man-made object would exit Earth's atmosphere. So it might come as a surprise to learn that the U.S. Space Force—the sixth and newest branch of the military, created by President Donald Trump in 2019—has a stable of decidedly earthbound "military working horses" at the Vandenberg Space Force Base on California's Pacific Coast.
That makes about as much sense as anything else connected to the Space Force, which will cost taxpayers a little more than $18 billion this year. For that kind of cash, the horses should at least get to wear jetpacks.
The Space Force has always been something of a joke. Unfortunately, it is now a very expensive one. If there is any lesson to be learned from the first few years of the branch's existence, it is that Congress cannot resist dumping money on the Pentagon—even when the Pentagon doesn't want it.
Top Defense Department officials opposed the new service, which they viewed as too expensive to be practical. "At a time when we are trying to integrate the [Defense] Department's joint warfighting functions," then–Defense Secretary James Mattis wrote in a 2017 letter to Congress, "I do not wish to add a separate service that would likely present a narrower and even parochial approach to space operations." Those operations, Mattis noted, were already under the Air Force's purview.
In a country run by sane leaders, that would have been that: If the military says it does not need a Space Force, there is no reason to create one. But that's not how the federal budget works. Vice President Mike Pence was trotted out in August 2018 to give a speech confirming that, yes, this was happening. "It's not enough to have an American presence in space," he said. "We must have American dominance in space."
As Americans learned during the first two decades of this century, a dominating U.S. presence in faraway places does not come cheap. A September 2018 memo from the Pentagon confirmed the bill for a new Space Force: $13 billion during the first five years.
Once again, hope flared that the Space Force might not make it off the launchpad. "Too costly and beyond what is needed" was how then–Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson described the idea to the Washington Examiner shortly after the memo was released.
Politics also threatened to crash the Space Force. "I am concerned" that a new branch of the military "would create additional costly military bureaucracy at a time when we have limited resources for defense and critical domestic priorities," Rep. Adam Smith (D–Wash.), then the highest-ranking Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, told Defense News in November 2018. He promised that Democrats would block the creation of a Space Force if they took control of the House in that year's midterm elections, which they did.
Yet when the National Defense Authorization Act, a $738 billion monstrosity that officially created the Space Force, went before the House in December 2019, it passed with broad bipartisan support. Just six Republicans and 41 Democrats voted against it. It turned out that Democrats in Congress liked spending money on the military almost as much as Trump and the Republicans did.
As with all military programs, early estimates of how much the Space Force would cost have proven to be hopelessly naive. Although the Space Force was supposed to cost $13 billion total during its first five years, Congress hiked the branch's annual appropriation to a bit more than $18 billion in the budget it passed last year. In March, President Joe Biden proposed giving the Space Force $24.5 billion next year. Congress had yet to vote on that budget plan as of early October.
There are unseen costs to consider too. Every brainy American with one eye on the stars who gets lured into the Space Force will become another cog in the military bureaucracy rather than working for productive (and peaceful) space-based companies in the private sector.
As for those horses, the military probably is not planning to blast them off to the moon or Mars anytime soon. In another bizarre twist, the Space Force inherited the horses from a conservation program formerly run by the Air Force, which originally was tasked with maintaining the military's equine capacity so soldiers could reach otherwise inaccessible regions.
The advent of military helicopters made military horses obsolete decades ago. But the Air Force still had horses, and now the Space Force has horses, because the military bureaucracy only ever grows. The Space Force itself is proof of that.