Satellites make much of modern warfare possible, through GPS systems, wireless communications and sophisticated weather forecasting. This makes satellites tempting military targets. The U.S. Air Force is now responsible for defending American satellites and spacecraft and wants to continue to do so. But President Donald Trump says the perils require a new military branch, which has come to be known as the Space Force. Critics say adding a Space Force would just add bureaucracy and costs. Supporters say a new military branch is needed to prioritize U.S. defenses for the next battlefront.
1. What would a Space Force do?
In a report to Congress released Aug. 9, the Department of Defense laid out a plan to build a new force to defend U.S. interests in space with aggressive offensive capabilities. This would include systems that could “degrade, deny, disrupt, destroy, and manipulate adversary capabilities.” The force would hold joint space training and military exercises with U.S. allies; a four-star general or flag officer would be in charge of the new command.
2. Is there a true military threat in space?
Yes, but not in the Hollywood sense of alien invaders attacking lower Manhattan. The main threat is the ability to disable or destroy an adversary’s satellites from the ground. In 2007, China first used a ballistic missile to destroy its own old weather satellite orbiting 535 miles (861 km) above Earth; Russia has been testing a missile that could be used to strike and destroy a satellite or ballistic missile. It’s likely that other nations won’t be far behind. If you destroy a spy satellite, the flow of real-time intelligence from a particular spot in China or Iran could stop. A communications satellite that’s jammed from the ground could mean ground troops suddenly find themselves operating blindly. And because existing international treaties governing space are unclear, even civilian satellites could be targeted by nations looking to contain or punish their enemies.
3. How would the new force defend space?
The U.S. military was already working on systems to protect satellites from threats like jamming and destruction by “kinetic” objects, such as missiles or other satellites. And there’s a top-secret Air Force aircraft, the X-37B, which has orbited Earth for expanded periods; its missions are unknown. In a speech on Aug. 9, Vice President Mike Pence said American should have “dominance in space.” A Space Force could mean bigger research and development budgets. Some in Congress have called for weapons that could destroy ballistic missiles from space. On a more workaday level, the Space Force would likely take over the Air Force’s job of tracking the world’s active satellites to make sure they don’t collide with one another or with space debris and notify owners to reposition their satellites if there’s a possibility of impact.
4. Can the U.S. put weapons in space?
Yes. The 1967 United Nations Outer Space Treaty, which bans weapons of mass destruction in space, prohibited orbiting nuclear weapons. But it didn’t prohibit other weapons. In an interview with Bloomberg in October, the head of the Air Force Space Command, General John W. “Jay” Raymond, said that “our goal is not to have conflict in space.” But, he added, space is “a war-fighting domain and we need to treat it as such.”
5. When would the Space Force start?
Congress would need to authorize it first, something it declined to do last year. With Trump fully on board, the prospects for a sixth service branch — joining the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines and Coast Guard — could change. Trump will call on Congress to allocate $8 billion over the next five years to establish the Space Force.
6. Was the Space Force Trump’s idea?
No, though he is the first president to publicly call for a separate military branch for space. The debate over space militarization dates to at least the Cold War, when the U.S. and Soviet Union first realized that controlling space could give them an edge in a conflict. In 1982, the investigative arm of Congress urged the creation of an “aerospace force” or “space force” to develop “laser battle stations in space” that could defend against a Soviet ballistic missile attack. The following year, President Ronald Reagan called for such a system, the Strategic Defense Initiative, which critics nicknamed “Star Wars.” (It never advanced beyond the research phase; its successor, the Missile Defense Agency, uses Earth-based systems like Thaad to destroy missiles at high altitudes.) In early 2001, a commission led by former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld concluded that the U.S. wasn’t prepared to defend its enormous dependence on satellites. In 2017, House of Representatives members led by Representative Mike Rogers, an Alabama Republican, began pushing for a new “space corps.”
7. Why take space away from the Air Force?
The argument for 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 theater of conflict. But the Air Force considers space defense as one of its core missions and has had a Space Command since 1982. Air Force officials — and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis — had argued that setting up a separate space branch would add bureaucratic layers and slow down existing research and programs. A Space Force might cause Congress to pare the Air Force budget, or other parts of Pentagon or overall spending, to help pay for the new branch. The Air Force now gets more than $11 billion for its space programs — the bulk of the Defense Department’s unclassified national security space programs, according to the Pentagon’s fiscal 2019 budget request.
8. Do other countries have military space forces?
Yes. Russia created its Aerospace Forces in 2015. China’s space program was always part of its military; in 2015 the People’s Liberation Army added a Strategic Support Force in part to coordinate all the military’s space-related capabilities.
9. What would a Space Force mean for NASA?
It wouldn’t cut into its budget, according to NASA’s new administrator, Jim Bridenstine, who addressed that topic in a July interview with Bloomberg News. And the civilian space agency would still lead the way in space exploration and scientific endeavors.
--With assistance from Roxana Tiron.
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