Donald Trump muses about preparing to fight wars in space but the battle lines have already been drawn
Much of the push to formalise an off-planet branch of the US armed forces is motivated by space investment by Russia and China
US president Donald Trump’s recent musings about forming a new military branch, a US Space Force, revives a debate that began almost 20 years ago about whether the Pentagon’s space activities should be moved to a new command.
“Space is a war-fighting domain, just like the land, air and sea,” President Donald Trump said, standing before a Marine Corps F/A-18 fighter jet while addressing service members March 13 near San Diego. “We may even have a Space Force, develop another one. We have the Air Force, we’ll have the Space Force.”
But in many ways, America already has a space-based military footprint. Today, the sky is teeming with spy satellites and other platforms that support government surveillance, communications, weather forecasting and other activities. The Air Force also has a top-secret aircraft, the X-37B, built by Boeing Co., which orbits the earth for extended periods. The most recent X-37B mission launched in September. And given the semi-regular drumbeat of secret military payloads being lofted into space, it’s fairly likely there’s a lot more up there we don’t know about.
But America isn’t alone up there. In 2007, China fired a missile to destroy an aged weather satellite, showing in a dramatic fashion its ability to deploy anti-satellite weapons. That incident led to a large increase in the amount of orbiting space debris and diplomatic blowback for the Chinese government.
The US and Russia have similar “anti-sat” missilery and it’s a safe bet that plenty of other nations would like to add these capabilities as space becomes an increasingly fertile area for military advantage, and not just the realm of commercial endeavours and private joyrides.
Even before Trump’s comments, the Defence Department was under orders to formulate a “concept of operations” document for space war fighting, due this June. That exercise will help to tell how the government develops and acquires new space capabilities, Air Force General John Hyten, commander of US Strategic Command, said on Tuesday.
“We must normalise space and cyberspace as war-fighting domains,” Hyten testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee. “There is no war in space, just as there is no war in cyberspace. There is only war, and war can extend into any domain.”
Much of the push to formalise an off-planet branch of the US armed forces is motivated by space investment by Russia and China, the latter of which is eager to establish itself as a superpower with plans for an orbiting space station and a permanent outpost on the moon.
Meanwhile, Russia under President Vladimir Putin has become increasingly aggressive, annexing Crimea, deploying more sophisticated nuclear weapons and waging conventional warfare in eastern Ukraine and Syria. But he too has aspirations, albeit troubled ones, up above.
In both China and Russia, space research is closely tied to military priorities, according to witnesses who testified last month at the second meeting of the National Space Council. Among America’s adversaries, “denial of US space advantage is a key component of their strategy,” Kenneth Rapuano, an assistant secretary of defence, testified last week at a House budget hearing.
Defence observers liken the potential of a new US space service branch to how the Air Force began in 1947, as Congress determined that the increasing importance of air power should no longer be concentrated within the Army Air Corps.
“Once nuclear deterrence became the centrepiece of national strategy, the US Air Force was elevated to first among equals in military councils,” defence analyst Loren Thompson of the Lexington Institute wrote last week. “Today, though, space advocates will tell you that the Air Force is playing the same role the Army did in the 1930s, restraining its best minds from thinking imaginatively about how to cope with the emergence of new war-fighting challenges and domains.”
Last year, House members led by Representative Mike Rogers, an Alabama Republican, began pushing for a new “space corps,” situated outside the Air Force. The argument for such a new military arm rests on the notion that Air Force brass focus their budgets, and priorities, on conventional air superiority and manage space as only an ancillary theatre of conflict.
That complaint dates to at least 2000, when a commission led by former Secretary of defence Donald Rumsfeld concluded that the US is heavily dependent on space, that space was likely to join the battlefield in future conflicts and that the country wasn’t prepared.
“Our growing dependence on space, our vulnerabilities in space and the burgeoning opportunities from space are simply not reflected in the present institutional arrangements,” the commission’s 2001 report said.
“They are so indoctrinated to the way they do things,” Rogers said of the Air Force at a panel discussion last month. “With a space corps, we can start with a clean sheet.”
The Trump administration appears split on the issue: The president seems supportive of a new military branch, while his Secretary of defence and Air Force Secretary are both in the “not necessary” camp, at least as of March 21. On multiple occasions, the Air Force has told Congress that space conflict is well within its bailiwick.
“I am increasingly convinced that we are at a strategic inflection point and that we must accelerate our preparations,” General John “Jay” Raymond, head of Air Force Space Command, said March 15 at a House budget hearing on national security space programmes. Besides space, the command also handles cyberspace security. The Space Command was established in 1982 and is based at Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado. In January, the command’s National Space Defence Centre, which protects US space assets, moved from an “experiment” to a round-the-clock defence operation.
But it’s clear that establishing a new branch of the military will also add a new layer of bureaucracy, create new opportunities for congressional spending to benefit the folks back home and of course feed the armies of lobbyists who will flock to direct the largesse. All the while, critics will argue that military budgets would be better spent integrating existing military systems.
It’s worth noting, of course, that the US and Russian space programmes arose from the cold war as each side sought geopolitical superiority, spurred by the Soviet Union’s 1957 launch of its Sputnik satellite. The following year, the US launched its first satellite and soon began exploding atomic weapons in space. A July 1962 test over the Pacific, dubbed Starfish Prime, led to a front-page headline in a Honolulu newspaper: “N-Blast Tonight May Be Dazzling: Good View Likely.” Russia has also tested nuclear bombs in space.
In 1963, Russia and the US agreed to stop tests in space, underwater or in the atmosphere, and the United Nations Outer Space Treaty enacted four years later prohibits weapons of mass destruction in space.
But while nukes may be off limits, space is likely to become a place where the US, Russia, China and others decide to park weapons as technology matures and launch costs decline.
“War might be waged very differently if there were a Space Force co-equal with the other services,” Thompson of the Lexington Institute wrote.
Whatever US offensive weapons may be in space right now are classified. Still, it’s highly unlikely that the Pentagon or Kremlin have caught up to Hollywood’s terms for space conflict: A weaponised satellite James Bond must disarm or a space infantry dropping onto an alien planet to battle oversized arthropods are probably still out of reach. There’s been no shortage of speculation, some of it highly fanciful, about what types of weapons could eventually populate space, including metallic rods travelling at hypersonic speeds to be launched from orbit.
“I think there will be more counter-space weapons that are proliferated around the world,” said Todd Harrison, a defence analyst with the Centre for Strategic and International Studies. “I think it is inevitable.”
The problem for most governments with military satellite fleets, including the US, is an inability to defend them in a war.
“What’s lacking and what is most needed is our ability to adequately protect these systems against a variety of attacks,” Harrison said, citing enemies’ ability to jam communications signals, potent lasers that can disable satellites or “high-powered microwave weapons” to interfere with satellites’ operations.