After months of debate and conjecture, President Trump announced on Monday that he would direct the Pentagon to establish a sixth branch of the United States military tasked specifically with space based and orbital defense. This new branch, which will take on the space role currently occupied by the Air Force’s Space Command, has seen support and criticism from bipartisan lawmakers and defense officials alike. At a Monday meeting of the National Space Council President Trump said,
I am hereby directing the Department of Defense and Pentagon to immediately begin the process necessary to establish a space force as the sixth branch of the armed forces. Our destiny beyond the Earth is not only a matter of national identity but a matter of national security.”
While most parties associated with America’s defense apparatus agree that orbital defense is a significant concern, not all agree that the establishment of a space-specific branch is the most effective means of addressing the growing threat posed by foreign competitors. Defense Secretary James Mattis, in particular, has voiced his concerns about the logistical and administrative overhead required for the establishment of a new branch.
“We are going to have a space force,” Trump said. “An Air Force and a Space Force. Separate, but equal.”
The president did not offer much more in the way of details regarding the establishment of this new branch, but there are certain extrapolations one can make regarding the extent of its purview based on the existing space command as well as already existing space-based military branches in operation as part of both the Russian and Chinese armed forces. Contrary to popular sentiments being expressed on social media, President Trump’s announcement of this new branch is far from an effort to militarize space. Space has already been militarized — a Space Force would actually be primarily tasked with the defense of orbital defensive assets the U.S. military has already long relied on for day to day operations.
In recent months, ballistic missile defense has been at the forefront of public concerns about North Korea’s nuclear pursuits, and while these discussions have introduced the American public to several concepts like kinetic interceptors and powerful RADAR arrays in platforms like the THAAD missile defense system, but little attention has been paid to the satellite infrastructure responsible for identifying a launch when it occurs. Even a temporary issue with those satellites would mean being unable to identify a launch with sufficient time to calculate its trajectory and launch kinetic interceptors — meaning all of America’s elaborate overlapping missile defense systems could currently be rendered moot by the orbital equivalent of shining a laser pointer on the lens of a satellite, and that’s only one of the many facets of America’s defenses that rely on satellites.
The Air Force has thus far been tasked with orbital defense, though many have criticized the branch for failing to allocate sufficient funding to the theater. Republican Congressman Mike Rogers, who first championed the establishment of a space branch in Congress’ defense budget last year, has been vocal about the requirement of a separate branch to give space an equal footing in budgetary debates. Rogers said in a recent interview,
The Air Force has had plenty of time to know this had to be done. If they could make themselves do it, they would have. Unfortunately, because space is one of the 11 other missions they have, it is always going to be subordinate, but worse it’s going to be a pay-for, which is what’s happened over these years. We’ve seen repeatedly where the Air Force has reached into space program funds to put them against fighter jets, bombers, tankers. That has exacerbated this already bad problem that we have with space.”
Featured image: U.S. President Donald Trump delivers a speech for the U.S. troops at the U.S. Yokota Air Base, on the outskirts of Tokyo, Sunday, Nov. 5, 2017. President Trump arrived in Japan Sunday on a five-nation trip to Asia, his second extended foreign trip since taking office and his first to Asia. The trip will take him to Japan, South Korea, China, Vietnam and Philippines for summits of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). (AP Photo/Eugene Hoshiko)