Appearing before a crowd at Marine Corps Air Station Miramar in San Diego, President Donald Trump reignited a seemingly dead call for a dedicated space-based branch of the military.
Space is a war-fighting domain, just like the land, air, and sea,” Trump said. “We may even have a Space Force, develop another one, Space Force. We have the Air Force, we’ll have the Space Force.”
The idea of a space branch of the military was floated last year as well, when the House Armed Services Committee introduced legislation calling for the founding of a “Space Corps” devoted to operationalizing earth orbit in much the same fashion America’s competitors are already setting about doing. That bill, proposed by Republican Rep. Mike Rogers and Democrat Rep. Jim Cooper, criticized the Air Force for failing to meet the growing demands of the domain, in part, because insufficient funding was being allocated to the cause, and also because the officials tasked with managing the space effort were not given sufficient authority to bring about any actionable change.
That Space Corps was to fall under the Department of the Air Force in much the same way the Marine Corps falls under the Department of the Navy.
That bill actually passed a vote in Congress as a part of the 2018 National Defense Authorization Act, which is effectively the annual budget, however it was killed when Congress and the Senate reconciled their two budgets into a singular plan for the coming year.
We assess that Russia and China perceive a need to offset any U.S. military advantage derived from military, civil, or commercial space systems and are increasingly considering attacks against satellite systems as part of their future warfare doctrine,” Dan Coats, the Director of National Intelligence, said earlier this year.
When the two budgets were reconciled, a number of changes were made to the way the United States military approaches orbital operations, including the elimination of units as a part of a broader consolidation effort that brought all orbital authority under a singular Air Force Space Command. Heather Wilson, the Secretary of the Air Force, also lost her position as Defense Secretary James Mattis’ primary space advisor, with space based authority shifting up the chain of command to Deputy Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan.
At the time, both Mattis and Wilson opposed the idea of establishing a dedicated space force or corps, worrying that the added bureaucracy associated with standing up a new branch of the military would hinder American efforts to regain operational supremacy in orbit – though it may be important to note that both Russia and China do already have dedicated military branches devoted specifically to outer space.
Russia’s Space Force, which is a dedicated branch of the Russian Aerospace Forces, has been operational since 2015, though it technically dates back to 1992, when it assumed shared control over the Baikonur Cosmodrome with the Russian Federal Space Agency. Their Space Force, however, was eventually absorbed into Russia’s Strategic Missile Command where it remained until a restructuring in 2015 gave it back its independence.
China’s national space efforts have also included the establishment of a national defense space force, called the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Strategic Support Force (SSF). Like the Russian equivalent, the SSF was established in 2015 and has been tasked with better integrating space, cyber, and electronic warfare capabilities into PLA operations.
In my best military judgment, China is on a 10-year journey to operationalize space. We’re on a 50-year journey,” Air Force Lt. Gen. Steve Kwast said in November. “We could be on a five-year journey because it’s all about how aggressively we are going about this journey.”
It’s worth noting that all of China’s space-based efforts are tied directly to the People’s Liberation Army, as the nation has no civilian space agency like those employed by Russia (Roscosmos) or the United States (NASA).
So think of that, Space Force,” Trump said on Tuesday, “because we are spending a lot and we have a lot of private money coming in, tremendous. You saw what happened the other day, and tremendous success. From the very beginning, many of our astronauts have been soldiers and air men, coast guard men and marines. And our service members will be vital to ensuring America continues to lead the way into the stars.”
Image courtesy of the Department of Defense