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

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

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?