President Trump’s recent announcement about the formation of a fourth military branch called the Space Force has been met with a mix of excitement or mocking derision, depending on who you listen to. It may turn out to be something mundane, such as a way to streamline procurement and research and development of communication and navigation satellites — that all three branches of the military tend to develop separately with their own budgets and resources. Or it could be about developing a multifaceted approach for the US to further its military domination, adding a mastery of space to its mastery of air, land, and sea.

We are poised again on the cusp of some major leaps in technological advancement. The technologies of the 20th century are almost at their zenith. The most significant of these technologies, the internal combustion engine, is all but maxed out in terms of output and performance, and can now be surpassed by automotive electric motors, which are only about 20 years old at this point. They just need a breakthrough in battery storage that decreases weight, recharges quickly and extends the range to 350 miles, and in 20 years the gas-powered automobile will all but disappear. Several companies are working on sending paying passengers into space. Not for science, but for leisure. We are also poised on the cusp of some game-changing weapons designs, as well. Iran and Russia are working on hypersonic missiles, but we are working on lasers and rail guns. And that could be part of what the Space Force will develop and deploy.

Rail Guns

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Electromagnetic rail gun prototypes on display aboard joint high-speed vessel USS Millinocket (JHSV 3) in port at Naval Base San Diego.  (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Kristopher Kirsop/Released)

Rail guns use electromagnets to accelerate a projectile down a rail to speeds up to Mach 5, and ranges as far as 250 miles. And they are scalable;  make the rails longer, add more power and you can shoot a larger round even further… perhaps into low Earth Orbit. Now imagine a future belligerent threatening the US or an ally, counting on US aversion to casualties and the cost of operating a $20 billion Carrier Battle Group in their waters for several months as they make demands for money or other concessions from the UN. Rail Gun technology could take the teeth out of those kinds of threats. A dozen or so guns could launch a couple of thousand projectiles into low Earth orbit in a single day. If the projectiles were GPS capable and had a small propellant charge, they could park themselves over a belligerent country and just sit uploading targeting assignments 400 miles out in space. At a single command, all of them in their thousands give a little squirt of CO2 and begin the plummet back down to Earth reaching a speed of Mach 5. No anti-missile system in existence right now has the slightest chance of stopping several thousand individually targeted and hypersonic projectiles coming down like a cloud.

And the projectiles are cheap, in the thousands of dollars per unit versus a Million dollars for a Tomahawk Land Attack Missile. They rely on pure kinetic energy rather than explosives to do their damage so they do not require special handling or storage. If a crisis passes and they are pointed into the ocean and dropped there they don’t pose any pollution hazard. Rail guns and satellites may end up being a major part of the Space Force.

Space-Based Lasers

Neil deGrasse Tyson supports a Space Force but doesn't quite understand how space war would work

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U.S. Navy photo by John F. Williams

It is generally agreed that the best way to shoot downs a ballistic missile is to hit it in the boost phase right after launch. Once the missile reaches the speeds of its mid-course phase (which is thousands of miles an hour), it becomes much harder. The current thinking is you need F-35s orbiting off the coast or near the border of a belligerent and you shoot a long-range radar-guided missile at the enemy missile when it leaves the launcher silo.

But what if you could instantly shoot it down from space using a laser?

The Navy has been working on a ship-mounted laser weapon system to defeat aircraft and missile threats. Its advantages are obvious: instant reaction to the inbound threat, no explosive ammunition stored aboard the ship and much fewer moving parts to have to maintain.

Now imagine this system on a satellite in space watching over an adversary country. Laser energy travels much further in space than inside Earth’s atmosphere and it moves at the speed of light. This space-borne laser could destroy enemy missiles sent aloft a few thousand feet above the ground. If we had enough of them they could create a global shield of missile defense for the US and our allies.

Anti-Satellite Weapons

DIA image of an anti-satellite weapon in 1988.

How do you kill a Satellite going 10,000 miles an hour? Put something in its way and let it run into it. The US developed anti-satellite weapons in the 1950s. The Vought ASM-135 ASAT missile launched from an F-15 flying at 38,000ft destroyed US satellite P78-1 in 1985. In February of 2008, a Navy Destroyer shot down a malfunctioning US satellite in a decaying orbit. It used a RIM 161 Standard Missile to shoot it down like it was nothing. But space-based satellites hold the promise shooting down other satellites in a much more efficient manner, and the cost of launching and controlling those satellites is much less expensive than it was. The world today relies on satellites for GPS navigation, communications, and even TV entertainment. Communications and navigation is also a vital part of any country’s strategic warfighting. Kill their satellites and you limit them to line of sight radio comms and paper maps .

The “Space Force” for now is just on paper and looking for budget, but a significant part of future wars are destined to be fought in space with weapons currently under development by us. It’s only logical that we funnel the R&D of the various military services in to a single organization to get the most bang for the taxpayer’s buck.