President Donald Trump says the United States may need to create a military branch dedicated to protecting and promoting U.S. interests in space. “We have the Air Force,” he observes matter-of-factly, “we’ll have the Space Force.” This comes on the heels of efforts in Congress to prod the Pentagon to begin the arduous process of standing up either a Space Corps under the Air Force (modeled after the Navy-Marine Corps relationship) or a full-fledged Space Force (modeled after the Army-Air Force separation after World War II). The president’s glib, Twitter-style presentation notwithstanding, building a military branch focused on operations beyond the earth’s atmosphere will serve the national interest and extend America’s capacity to promote stability in yet another area of the global commons.
Reacting to Trump’s comments, Rep. Mike Rogers, chairman of a key subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee, said, “I am so excited to have the support of President Trump as we work towards this goal…I anticipate that the [Defense] department will accelerate its plans to embrace the formation of an independent space force.” Along with Rep. Jim Cooper, the subcommittee’s ranking member, Rogers pushed for a provision in the FY2018 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) that would “require the creation, under the secretary of the Air Force, of a new Space Corps, as a separate military service responsible for national security space programs” by Jan. 1, 2019.
As The Hill reports, that proposal failed to make it into the final NDAA, but the NDAA did require the Pentagon “to study the possibility of creating a Space Corps.” Deputy Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan is heading up that review of how the Pentagon should posture and perhaps reorganize itself to address the many challenges facing the United States beyond the Earth’s atmosphere. “The assessment of the Space Corps is one of those options that is getting close attention,” according to Assistant Secretary of Defense Kenneth Rapuano.
Rogers worries that Air Force resources—personnel, equipment, intellectual firepower—are being stretched too thin by the demands of both air and space operations. “Space must be a priority, and it can't be one if you jump out of bed in the morning thinking about fighters and bombers first,” Rogers argues. He believes that “space needs to be put on par with the other domains of conflict—land, air, sea and cyber...It cannot remain a subservient mission.” According to Rogers, “With a Space Corps, we can start with a clean sheet.”
It won’t be as easy as flipping a switch, however. Roger estimates standing up a fully independent branch could take “10 or 12 years.”
Trump, Rogers and Cooper are not alone, and their idea is not new. In 2000, a congressionally-appointed commission openly contemplated the establishment of “a Space Corps within the Air Force” to conduct “independent operations” in space and “to deter and defend against hostile actions directed at the interests of the United States.” The commission added that “in the longer term” it may be necessary to create “a military department for space”—a U.S. Space Force.
More recently, John Hamre, deputy secretary of defense under President Bill Clinton, concluded in 2016, “We are not well organized to deal with the new challenges we face in space. The old structure may have been sufficient when space was an uncontested area of operations. That time has passed.” He mentioned as possibilities creating a full-fledged Space Force, carving out “a Space Service ... within the Department of the Air Force” like the Navy-Marine Corps relationship or “elevating the Space Command to become equal in stature to the Strategic Command.”
Dependence and Defense
It would be wrong to conclude that the White House and certain members of Congress are steering America toward a military branch dedicated to space. To the contrary, they are following U.S. interests into space. At its core, the U.S. military’s job is to protect American interests, and today those interests increasingly extend into space.
Consider a recent Space Foundation report, which reveals a global space economy of more than $323 billion—up from $261.6 billion in 2009. More than 221,500 Americans work in the space sector. U.S. government space spending was $44.6 billion in 2015, and non-government space spending by American firms was $32 billion that year. Of the 1,300 functioning satellites currently orbiting earth, 568 are American.
Missile-defense warships prowling the Pacific, ground troops patrolling Afghanistan, UCAVs circling over Iraq and Libya, JDAMs strapped to fighter-bombers loitering over Syria, sensors monitoring Russian, Chinese and North Korean nukes, the communications systems that connect troops, weapons, bases, allies and the National Command Authority, the infrastructure and superstructure of the entire military—all of this depends on space assets. We are fast approaching a day when space will become more than just a means to support military operations. It will become a theater of military operations. But don’t take my word for it. “In the coming period,” as the commission on space concluded, “the U.S. will conduct operations to, from, in and through space.”
All of this helps explain why the Air Force space-related budget increased by $1.5 billion this year, why the Pentagon’s space budget for 2017 was an eyebrow-raising $22 billion, why the Pentagon recently renamed its Joint Interagency Combined Space Operations Center the National Space Defense Center, why the Air Force created a “Space Mission Force” in 2016 and stood up a new office headed by a three-star general to advise the Air Force secretary and Air Force chief of staff on matters related to space, why Trump re-established the National Space Council to coordinate, develop and ensure “the implementation of national space policy and strategy,” and why the president recently issued what may one day be called the Trump Doctrine: “Any harmful interference with or an attack upon critical components of our space architecture that directly affects this vital U.S. interest will be met with a deliberate response at a time, place, manner and domain of our choosing.”
The Pentagon and its industry partners are using these directives, organizations and resources to reorient America’s military, keep pace with America’s enemies, and conceive, test and deploy new assets for a new domain. DARPA, for instance, has chosen Boeing to build a new experimental spaceplane, dubbed the XS-1, which will be capable of flying Mach 10 and delivering payloads of 3,000 pounds into low Earth orbit. “Ultimately, DARPA envisions from the XS-1 a fully reusable unmanned vehicle, the size of a business jet, which would take off vertically like a rocket and fly to hypersonic speeds,” Defense News reports. Scheduled to fly by 2020, the XS-1 will be able to deploy 10 times in a 10-day period.
Meanwhile, the Air Force continues to deploy its secretive X-37B unmanned spaceplane. The Air Force is known to have two X-37Bs and has deployed them multiple times since 2010, most recently in September 2017. The X-37Bs are probably used to deliver and test new satellite systems but may also be used to monitor, shadow and even disable enemy satellites.
Understandably, the Air Force has a strong preference to remain the lead branch in space operations.
Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson and other USAF leaders argue that “space warfighting is consistent with operations in the air—for which the Air Force has well-developed command-and-control and operational doctrine.” Gen. John W. Raymond, commander of Air Force Space Command, adds, “The Air Force has led America’s national security operations in space for more than 60 years.” And Lt. Gen. David J. Buck, commander of the Joint Functional Component Command for Space, argues that defending U.S. interests in space “doesn’t require a clean-slate approach.”
“I think that someday we'll have a space corps or ‘Space Force’ in this country. But I don't think the time is right for that right now,” adds Gen. John Hyten, commander of U.S. Strategic Command. Instead, he emphasizes what the military calls “jointness,” which is the notion that all branches need to work together across all domains—land, sea, sky, space and cyberspace—to detect, deter, dissuade and if necessary defeat threats from any and all domains. “There is no war in space,” he bluntly observes, “There is only war, and war can extend into any domain.”
Given the actions of China and Russia, we may not have that much time to stand up a Space Corps or Space Force—or to settle the turf wars such a transformation is sure to trigger within the Pentagon.
“If you control space, you can also control the land and the sea,” Gen. Xu Qiliang, vice-commander of China’s Central Military Commission, observes. Toward that end, China has “the most rapidly maturing space program in the world,” according to a 2015 Pentagon report. A 2016 report adds, “PLA writings emphasize the necessity of ‘destroying, damaging and interfering with the enemy’s reconnaissance...and communications satellites,’ suggesting that such systems, as well as navigation and early warning satellites, could be among the targets of attacks designed to ‘blind and deafen the enemy.’” Thus, “The PLA is acquiring a range of technologies to improve China’s counter-space capabilities.” These include “directed-energy weapons…satellite jammers…anti-satellite capabilities.”
China has conducted at least three test-deployments of anti-satellite weapons (ASATs): a 2007 test that purposely rammed a kill vehicle into an aging Chinese satellite; a 2014 test that demonstrated the same capability without creating a permanent minefield of space debris; and a 2013 test that sent an ASAT into what published reports describe as “ultra-high altitude…three-times higher than the weapon tested in 2007 and 2014.”
Russia tested a new ASAT in 2015. In 2013 and 2014, the Russian military deployed a number of satellites capable of “rendezvous and proximity operations”—military parlance for maneuvering around other satellites in order to disrupt or disable them. Russia recently deployed 37 satellites in a single rocket launch. And to remove any doubt about how Russia intends to use its space assets, Moscow announced in 2015 that Russia’s “air forces, anti-air and anti-missile defenses, and space forces will now be under a unified command structure” known as the Aero-Space Forces.
In short, Russia and China are posturing their militaries to defend their interests—and exploit their capabilities—in space. The U.S. should do no less. As George Washington counseled, “There is nothing so likely to produce peace as to be well prepared to meet an enemy.” That time-tested maxim applies whether the enemy lurks on land, at sea, in the sky or in space.