On December 20, 2019, President Trump signed the 2020 National Defense Authorization Act (the defense budget) into law, and establishing the U.S. Space Force was one of the bigger ticket items that came along for the ride. For months now, there’s been plenty of talk, speculation, and memes breaking down what everyone figures the Space Force will do, but now that the Force has officially come to fruition, it seems like a good time to separate the facts from the memes, and logical predictions from science fiction.
Is the Space Force “militarizing” space?
The short answer is a resounding no. While dedicating a specific branch of the U.S. Military to space may sound like something out of a science fiction movie, the truth is both China and Russia (two nations that could be regarded as diplomatic opponents of the United States) already have branches of their armed forces dedicated to space operations. Russia’s “Space Forces” technically fall under their Aerospace Forces in much the same way the U.S. Marine Corps falls under the Navy. Russia’s military space efforts actually date back much further, however–all the way back to Sputnik in 1957. China’s PLA Strategic Support Force handles space and cyber operations and was established in 2015.
Of course, America’s military has also long been involved in space operations. In fact, the brunt of the new Space Force is actually made up of members of the U.S. Air Force Space Command, which has actually been in operation since 1982. The fact of the matter is, space has been “militarized” from the moment mankind managed to reach low orbit.
Why do we need a Space Force?
The United States of America maintains a massive orbital infrastructure of satellites that we rely on for countless day to day tasks, both in terms of normal commercial enterprises and the nation’s defense. America’s missile defense apparatus is comprised of multiple overlapping systems that all rely on early launch warnings from satellites in orbit. Every GPS unit in the world relies on American funded positioning satellites. If you have a mobile phone, go on the internet, or have ever used GPS to get where you were going, your life is connected to America’s satellite infrastructure. The U.S. military is no different; nearly ever facet of daily operations touches space in some way.
The problem is, the vast majority of those satellites were launched during an era where the United States had little to worry about in orbit. As Heather Wilson, the recently departed Secretary of the Air Force, once put it, “We built glass houses before the invention of stones.”
Nations like Russia and China are aware of our dependence on these satellites, and in turn, have been working to find ways to interfere with or destroy these capabilities. In fact, Russia has already been accused of deploying autonomous space assets that can be used to eavesdrop on communications or even destroy satellites by dragging them into a degrading orbit. As a result, the United States is working quickly to develop and launch hardened satellites, while simultaneously developing strategies to defend existing assets that are already in space.
How will we fight in space?
As disappointing as it may be to hear… the truth is, we probably won’t fight in space for a long time to come. In reality, the primary role of the Space Force will be monitoring orbital threats, securing our existing satellite infrastructure, and developing redundancies within America’s orbital defense infrastructure. What does that mean? They’ll mostly be tracking satellites, debris, and space craft in orbit to ensure they’re not on a collision course, while coming up with ways to make our existing satellites tougher to hack and developing cheaper ways to get replacements into orbit quickly whenever one is destroyed or fails for some other reason.
Most of the folks wearing a Space Force uniform will be relegated to desks, instead of jet boots, but just because their work won’t be as sexy as it looks in science fiction movies doesn’t mean it’s any less important. Attacks on satellites can come in a variety of forms, but few that bare any resemblance to the movies. All you need to interfere with a satellite is to give it a little nudge, and all you need to destroy one is to push or pull it into a degrading orbit and allow the friction of reentry to handle the destruction for you. This video shows methods of capturing and destroying space junk, but in reality, this approach is one of many that would be highly effective against satellites. Currently, these attacks would be handled in two ways: trying to avoid the attack, and then deploying a replacement satellite if one were destroyed. Currently, deploying a replacement would take a great deal of time and money, but one of the things the Space Force will be trying to do is streamline that process.
Why are people opposed to the Space Force?
Although pop culture has made light of the idea of a Space Force, most defense officials and lawmakers recognize the dire need for orbital defense, but there’s still plenty of opposition to establishing the Space Force as an independent branch. The reasons for that can really all be boiled down to money. Standing up an entirely new branch is an extremely expensive endeavor that adds a lot of overhead costs to the defense budget. Each independent branch requires an administrative infrastructure that has little to do with the space mission at hand: people to handle personnel files, finance, cooking, etc. Despite all the added expenses of establishing a new branch, the defense budget has not grown at the same rate. In other words, the defense budget has stayed about the same, but now has to be split six ways, instead of five.
Opponents of the Space Force argued that space operations should remain under the purview of the Air Force, allowing for the same essential capabilities without the added overhead expenses of establishing an entirely new branch. Critics of that concept, however, cite historical precedent when they say that the Air Force hasn’t done a very effective job of mitigating threats in orbit since establishing the Space Command decades ago, in large part because the Air Force has had to keep its focus on ongoing combat operations in the Middle East and elsewhere in the world.
The truth is, most people agree that we need space defense, but many think there’s a more cost effective way of going about it than establishing a Space Force.
Feature image courtesy of Lt. Col. Robert Haston, U.S. Air Force