For large swaths of America, the concept of a space-based branch of the military was relegated to science fiction until President Trump made the announcement that he was directing the Pentagon to establish a “Space Force,” but for those attuned to the defense industry, it was merely another bullet point in a long standing debate about how best to counter orbital threats to America’s national security.
That confusion was exacerbated by much of the national media coverage devoted to the Space Force — much of which focused on the President’s politics or exaggerated extrapolations of what a space branch may actually do, very little of which gave the subject at hand the due diligence it deserved. Establishing a Space Force, as SOFREP has covered in the past, would not militarize space, it would ensure the United States is keeping up in a theater that has already been militarized for years.
Whether the best way to counter orbital threats posed by the likes of Russia or China is the establishment of a new branch or the endeavor is better suited for its current place beneath the Air Force’s purview remains the subject of heated debate, but the tasks any body of the U.S. military responsible for space would be given remain the same regardless — and they’re a lot more boring than the flashy headlines and graphics may have you believe.
Initially, there would be very little difference between how a Space Force would operate and how the U.S. Air Force Space Command already conducts business. Currently, the U.S. military already employs more than 36,000 people spread throughout 134 locations as a part of the national space defense endeavor, and none of them are equipped with jet boots or laser cannons. For the most part, these professionals are tasked with providing support to the ground forces in combat, managing the launch and operation of orbital assets like communications and reconnaissance satellites, and with monitoring global activities such as ballistic missile launches.
Once formed, a Space Force would adopt these responsibilities, with the primary difference in execution being administrative — a separate branch would have more leverage when arguing for funding, theoretically ensuring space defense initiatives aimed at countering tomorrow’s threats don’t fall by the wayside when funding today’s wars. This divide is the crux of the argument in favor of a space specific branch.
The potential for conflict in space is a real one, but at least for now, there’s little threat of space soldiers attacking the International Space Station. Manned orbiters like the ISS pose very little tactical strategic value; the real targets are satellites, and you don’t even need to get to space to interfere with them. China has already demonstrated their ability to “shine a light” on U.S. satellites, using ground based lasers intended for tracking orbital debris to attempt to interfere with sensors aboard U.S. satellites. Although these lasers aren’t currently powerful enough to accomplish that feat, it would take very little to make them an offensive weapon, capable of distracting a satellite for a few minutes.
What could happen in a few minutes? The worst, that’s what. If U.S. satellites don’t identify an ICBM launch within the first few minutes it takes flight, the U.S. ballistic missile defense apparatus won’t have time to assess a trajectory and launch interceptors… in effect, shining a laser at a satellite could lead to an American loss in a nuclear conflict — and that’s just one way America is vulnerable to less-than-sexy space attacks.
From GPS navigation to the communication relays that keep our drones airborne and our troops in constant contact, the U.S. military has long been in the space business, but currently, has no means to protect the assets that are already in place. In orbit, a satellite need only be nudged off course to send it into an uncontrolled reentry, making orbital offensive weapons as simple to produce and use as a disposable satellite with maneuvering thrusters. Projects like the civilian RemoveDEBRIS program, which aims to find ways to pull space junk out of orbit also represent the forefront of space-weapon technology. Although China and the U.S. have both demonstrated the ability to literally shoot down satellites, you don’t need phasers, space ships, or missiles in orbit to wreak havoc… all you really need is a retractable arm and some bad intentions.
A space force would be tasked with the often boring job of tracking orbital assets and moving to mitigate threats. Eventually, things like the Air Force‘s X-37B could be used to mount offensive or defensive (unmanned) operations, working to counter orbital weapons (and assets cleverly disguised as anti-debris endeavors) before they can compromise America’s constellations of defense satellites. In many ways, it would be more like playing chess than filming Star Wars. When the day ever comes that a concerted effort was made to disable America’s satellites, the Space Force would be America’s first line of defense — offering an early warning of potential attacks that will follow.
The reality of conflict in space is not that unlike the reality of the threat posed by national competitors in the cyber realm. You don’t need to have the most money or the latest technology to be effective because destroying something is always easier than building it. A trillion dollar defense satellite, advanced as it may be, is still no match for a slug tug toward reentry or a gas-propelled projectile designed to damage its internal components, just like North Korean hackers were able to wreak havoc all around the world despite having far fewer resources at their disposal than those tasked with defending against such attacks. A Space Force wouldn’t place troops in orbit, but it could mean the difference between life or death for the troops back here on the ground.
So, while the space theater is not currently a particularly dynamic looking one, the stakes could not be any higher — as an offensive against the United States would invariably include an offensive on that front.
Featured image: The Joint Interagency Combined Space Operations Center, or JICSpOC, at Schriever Air Force Base in Colorado went live in October 2015 as collaboration among the U.S. Strategic Command, the National Reconnaissance Office, the Air Force Space Command, the Air Force Research Laboratory, the intelligence community and commercial data providers. | Air Force