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In a ceremony earlier this month honoring the Army football team, President Trump took a rhetorical detour to the military’s potential future in outer space.
“You will be part of the five proud branches of the United States Armed Forces: Army, Navy, Marines, Air Force and the Coast Guard,” Trump said. “And we’re actually thinking of a sixth, and that would be the Space Force. Does that make sense? Because we’re getting very big in space, both militarily and for other reasons. And we are seriously thinking of the Space Force.”
It wasn’t the first time he had mentioned the idea, which he first broached while speaking to Marines in California in March.
“You know, I was saying the other day because we’re doing a tremendous amount of work in space, maybe we need a new force,” Trump said. “We’ll call it the Space Force. And I was not really serious, and then I thought, ‘Maybe that’s a great idea. Maybe we’ll have to do that.’ ”
As Trump’s offhand comments implied, there is no official plan for something called “Space Force,” and there is opposition within the administration itself, including from Defense Secretary James Mattis. But the idea is popular with some in Congress. While the Air Force has had a Space Command division since 1982, some legislators and analysts believe the military needs a new branch devoted to warfare beyond the atmosphere.
The immediate future of space combat will almost certainly be less romantic than it sounds, less about X-wing vs. TIE fighter dogfights between rocket-jockey pilots than about protecting America’s military satellites in orbit and incapacitating an enemy’s. Satellites are expensive but critical to the U.S. effort, providing GPS, reconnaissance, communications and early detection of missile launches. But they’re also difficult to maneuver, almost impossible to repair and would likely become key targets in any future war. A 2000 report assessing the country’s space capabilities warned of the danger of a potential “Pearl Harbor in space.”
The race to find a technology to destroy satellites started shortly after the Soviet Union launched Sputnik I in 1957, raising fears of a nuclear attack from space. Over the ensuing decades the military researched various approaches, including a 1985 test in which the Air Force shot an American satellite out of the sky with a missile from an F-15 fighter plane.
The anti-satellite arms race hasn’t slowed since. In 2007, the Chinese successfully tested a surface-to-space guided missile, destroying one of their own weather satellites, alarming the Pentagon. The following year the American military showed a similar capability, modifying a missile from the USS Lake Erie to take out an inoperable spy satellite in a decaying orbit. Officials said they were concerned that the toxic chemicals in the satellite’s fuel tank could survive reentry and present a danger on the ground.
These tests leave debris in space, making it more difficult to find room for additional satellites and occasionally threatening the International Space Station. If a number of satellites were destroyed in a conflict, the resulting debris would make space difficult for anyone to use for any purpose, be it government or commercial.
But a missile strike isn’t the only way to take out a potential adversary’s space capabilities. Intelligence officials have raised the possibility of jamming transmissions or using a laser to temporarily dazzle or permanently blind reconnaissance satellites, burning out sensitive optical sensors. Earlier this year an anonymous Russian official said the country had developed a plane with a laser system on top capable of blinding enemy satellites, a potential danger described by Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats in 2017 Senate testimony.
What are some potential counters? One suggestion is simply to put up more and smaller satellites, decentralizing the network and making it more likely that a country’s imaging capabilities would slowly fade rather than go blind. Other possibilities include a movable shutter on the satellite lens to protect it from a laser attack, and additional shielding and maneuverability.
Meanwhile, the battle is taking place in Congress. The most recent skirmish was over last year’s National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Ala., and Rep. Jim Cooper, D-Tenn., senior members of the House Armed Services Committee, included language that would have mandated the Air Force to create a United States Space Corps. It would constitute a separate wing of the military that would function the way the Marines operate within the Navy but with its own seat on the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
The congressmen believe the Air Force has been negligent in modernizing its space capability, raiding funds allocated to Space Command to pay for cost overruns in other projects.
Analysts said the new focus is needed because America’s rivals in space are catching up.
“It’s easy to just delay space programs and not give them the funding increases that were planned in future years,” said Todd Harrison, a director and aerospace expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, “and the military’s been able to do that for many years because we haven’t really been matched in space. There weren’t a lot of countries that could put our systems at risk, and now that’s changed. There are an increasing number of countries that can hold our space systems at risk, so we’ve got to change the culture and mindset within the military [so] that this needs to be a higher priority.”
Rogers and Cooper’s amendment passed the House but failed in the Senate. It was opposed by Mattis, who said he shared concerns about the Department of Defense’s space capabilities but wanted to maintain the current structure. In a letter to Rep. Michael Turner, R-Ohio, provided by Turner’s office, Mattis wrote: “At a time when we are trying to integrate the Department’s joint warfighting functions, I do not wish to add a separate service that would likely present a narrower and even parochial approach to space operations.”
At the urging of Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson and others at the Pentagon, Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., and Sen. Deb Fischer, R-Neb., stripped the Space Corps language from the NDAA. Brian Weeden, a former officer in Space Command who is now a director at the Secure World Foundation, told Yahoo News the Air Force was engaging in some old-fashioned bureaucratic maneuvering.
“If the space mission goes somewhere else, that means the Air Force loses X billion of dollars from their budget and presumably somewhere around 40,000 people from their personnel list,” said Weeden. “And in bureaucracies, budget and people are power.”
The final version of the NDAA did include a few concessions to those pushing for the creation of a Space Corps. There were management and procedural changes meant to streamline the existing space programs and language calling for a study on the creation of a separate branch, which an official recently said would be done by August.
“The Air Force will no longer be able to treat space as a third-order priority after fighter jets and bombers,” said Rogers and Cooper in a joint statement after the NDAA passed in December with the revised language.
The United Nations attempted to address some space war concerns in 1967 when it urged members to sign on to an agreement known as the Outer Space Treaty. The treaty addressed a wide array of issues, including everything from classifying astronauts as “envoys of mankind” to banning the placement of nuclear weapons in orbit, on the moon or other “celestial bodies.” The treaty states that space should be used for “peaceful purposes,” but peaceful doesn’t necessarily mean nonmilitary; in terms of the treaty, it means nonaggressive in space. Satellites collecting intelligence, handling communications and guiding terrestrial weapons with their GPS have come to be allowed, but under the treaty no country can fire satellite-to-satellite or engage in space-to-surface warfare.
As legislators and administrators debate the space division’s structure and budget, preparations for a future space conflict continue. Space Command officials have set up virtual reality simulations for satellite technicians to practice their response if there were attacks on the U.S. network, an attempt by the Air Force to instill a “war fighting mentality” in veteran space operators. There are also the annual Schriever War Games, an exercise set a decade in the future that attempts to predict the evolution of space-based combat. And while the technological focus is mainly based around satellites, there are a few more fantastical advances, such as a potential new fighter-based laser weapon system, like the one Lockheed Martin was contracted to develop last year, and the X-37B, an unmanned spaceplane capable of flights lasting two years that has been partaking in a series of classified missions and experiments.
Whether under the rubric of a “Space Force” or the existing Air Force Space Command, it seems certain that the militarization of space will continue.
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