Questions about a US Space Force

June 22, 2018 | 11:56 am
Laura Grego
Research Director, Senior Scientist

This week, President Trump verbally directed General Dunford, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, “to begin the process necessary to establish a Space Force as the sixth branch of the armed forces.”

The term “Space Force” really got everyone’s attention. Obviously, everyone wants to know what the uniform would be. And the whole idea is built for memes.

What’s it all about? Let me respond to three different kinds of questions I’ve been hearing about this.

Fig. 1 (Source: Hayri Er/iStock)

Q1: I haven’t been paying attention, but I do love Star Wars. I thought space is a sanctuary and that we don’t have military satellites or weapons up there. Isn’t space is for astronauts and NASA and making sure I have Google Maps and don’t get lost? And doesn’t the Outer Space Treaty prohibit the weaponization or even militarization of space? Are we going to now have soldiers in space and bombs and lasers shooting up and down? Was this just another wild new tangent of Trump’s?

Response: There have been military satellites in orbit since the very beginning of the space age, but so far, no destructive weapons have been deployed there (though some have been tested). Space services are incredibly important to modern militaries. Satellites provide intelligence, reconnaissance, and surveillance; precision timing and navigation signals; ballistic missile launch warning; long distance, secure and large capacity communications, and more. All of the US armed forces use satellite services and have space-focused personnel.

The Outer Space Treaty (OST) sets out the guiding principles for space, including that it is the province of all (hu)mankind and should be used for peaceful purposes, and it expressly prohibits the stationing of weapons of mass destruction in space or on celestial objects. It’s really worth a read. It doesn’t prohibit all military activity in space, though it does prohibit military activity on the moon and other celestial bodies (such as Mars or asteroids.) Here’s a good take on how the OST fits in with the Space Force idea. Geopolitics and technology have changed, and it really is time for an elaboration of expected norms of behavior, limits on technologies, and rules of the road.

Satellites are difficult to protect, and this worries the Pentagon because the US military (and civilian economy) depends on them so heavily. More states are launching and buying their own satellites, and more states are developing anti-satellite weapons that can be used to target an adversary’s satellites if they see a need.

The US military has a keen interest in keeping satellites safe and secure, protecting the space environment, and ensuring that insecurity in space does not threaten security on the ground. The Pentagon has been coming at this issue from a number of different angles, including making satellites more resilient to attack and creating a deterrent strategy, including targeting others’ satellites.

The “Space Force” isn’t a new idea: the president’s announcement is one volley in an ongoing discussion about Pentagon organization. If the Space Force’s main mission reflects the way the military currently operates in space, the main responsibilities would be to operate satellites that provide support to terrestrial operations, keep those satellites protected, and hold a potential adversary’s satellites at risk. Keeping US satellites working in a conflict and denying an adversary the same is at least part of what President Trump was referring to when he talked about “American dominance in space.”  This language harkens back to the George W. Bush administration era, and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, who led a commission that suggested the United States reorganize the Pentagon’s space mission but also “vigorously pursue” capabilities that would give the President the option to deploy weapons in space.

Q2: I pay a lot of attention to defense and space issues and am really interested in bureaucratic organization. When does the Space Force start?

Response: The conversation about Pentagon space organization has been going on for years. While some Congress members, in particular Representative Mike Rogers (R-AL), have strong opinions on the space force idea, Congress in general has not greeted the idea warmly. Congress rejected a House proposal for a Space Corps within the Air Force last year, but agreed to direct a study, due August 1, to look at “a road map to establish a separate military department responsible for national security space.” Neither the House Armed Services Committee nor the Senate Armed Services committee markups of this year’s defense bill has included a separate Space Force. And Congress holds the purse strings. And the secretary of defense, the joint chiefs, and the secretary of the Air Force are all not on board with the concept.

Here’s a detailed look at what a Space Force or Space Corps might look like. (Note: The author thinks it’s an answer in search of a question.)

But it’s not all just a snoozy discussion about chains of command and acquisition authority. The way you set up bureaucracies sets up incentives (How do you get more resources under your purview? Who gets promoted for what activities?), and bureaucracies are not completely subservient to policy—they can drive policy. So, it’s certainly worth keeping a close eye on this process.

Q3: I’m sorry, I just fell asleep when you were talking about military bureaucracy. But you got me interested in space security. Tell me more.

Response: In any case, this bureaucratic move is not a solution to the wider issue at hand, which is the secure and sustainable use of space in the face of rapid technological and geopolitical changes. Forward-looking policies will need to be tailored not just to ensure national security but also to support civil and commercial space activities, which today comprise the predominant uses of space.

These policies’ central goals should be to minimize threats to all satellites, foster coordination to increase the benefits of space activities for all humankind, to protect the space environment for future use, and to keep space activities from spurring an arms race or creating or escalating terrestrial conflicts.

Space security cannot be achieved unilaterally, or solely through military means. It requires coordination, cooperation and diplomacy. There are a number of international processes going on, ranging from development of guidelines for the long-term sustainability of space, to the (currently stalled) European Union proposal for an International Code of Conduct for Outer Space Activities, to the United Nations Group of Governmental Experts process on practical measures to prevent an arms race in outer space.

Given that the United States is the dominant player in space, US leadership is essential.