The response to President Donald Trump’s official re-launch of the United States Space Command, or USSPACECOM, at a Rose Garden ceremony last week was rife with much of the same mocking and incredulity that has surrounded his interest in building a so-called Space Force. There has been considerable confusion, hype and joking — some of it deserved — about Trump’s space designs, but the reality is that U.S. national security increasingly relies on space capabilities, and those capabilities are increasingly vulnerable to emerging threats.
Russia and China are developing counterspace capabilities and anti-satellite weapons that could interfere with U.S. space systems in a future conflict.
While there is a reasonable debate to be had as to whether Space Command or the Space Force are the best answers, they are attempts to address serious fundamental questions about the best way to organize and protect U.S. military space capabilities and deter conflicts on earth from extending into space. Reorganizing and expanding the military can be good if doing so helps focus on the problems and implement solutions, but it can be detrimental if it creates distractions and wasted effort.
Bringing back Space Command was not a controversial move; its return is the result of several years of serious effort across both the Obama and Trump administrations and was previously authorized by legislation passed in 2018. Space Command had previously existed from 1985 until 2002, when its duties were absorbed by U.S. Strategic Command for bureaucratic reasons.
Space Command is now the newest of 11 different combatant commands responsible for overseeing and planning all military operations in a specific geographic area or domain, while the Space Force Trump seeks would be a new military service — like the Army, Navy or Marines — that would be responsible for recruiting, buying or building equipment and weapons, and training people to operate and use them.
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Space capabilities such as communications, imagery and navigation services provided by satellites are used by the U.S. military every day in operations around the world. At the same time, potential adversaries such as Russia and China are developing counterspace capabilities and anti-satellite weapons that could interfere with U.S. space systems in a future conflict by interfering with signals or destroying satellites. The United States faced similar space threats from the Soviet Union during the Cold War, but they largely faded in the early 1990s only to re-emerge in recent years.
While thoughts of space warfare may conjure up visions of Star Wars’ imperial TIE fighters zipping around or giant space battleships firing broadsides, that is a far cry from reality. Physics and orbital mechanics make many of those fantasy technologies impossible or impractical. While it is possible to destroy satellites with ground-based missiles, as India most recently demonstrated in March, the most common threats the military currently faces in space come from ground-based radio frequency jamming, laser dazzling or blinding, and cyberattacks.
These attacks can disrupt military satellites or the services they provide during critical military operations, and they tend to be cheaper and easier to pull off — and are less likely to be attributed to the culprit — than “kinetic” attacks. Environmental threats, such as collisions with space debris or encountering solar storms, also pose near-constant dangers to all satellites in orbit.
The Air Force has until now been the service most responsible for training, equipping and operating the U.S. military’s space capabilities. This includes operating the GPS satellites that are used worldwide by militaries and civilians alike and conducting space launches from Florida or California to send new military satellites into orbit.
But over the last several years, a growing number of people such as myself inside and outside the military have felt that the Air Force was not innovating or moving fast enough to address the new threats to U.S. space activities and maintain the U.S. advantage over potential adversaries. Re-establishing Space Command and creating a Space Force to take over from the Air Force are attempts to improve the situation.
The re-established Space Command will initially absorb two major functions that other U.S. military units currently perform, thereby giving them higher priority. The first helps coordinate and deliver space capabilities to the other combatant commands, such as making sure Central Command has sufficient GPS accuracy for a military operation in Afghanistan, and improve how space is integrated into their operational planning.
The second function is to protect and defend U.S. national security space capabilities against attacks, including monitoring the space environment for potential threats to U.S. satellites, detecting and characterizing an actual attack, and determining the best course of action in response.
As for the fate of the Space Force, that has yet to be decided by Congress. Instead of Trump’s demand for a “separate but equal” Department of the Space Force, the actual Pentagon plan calls for a Marine Corps-like organization within the Air Force along the lines of what GOP Rep. Mike Rogers of Alabama called for two years ago. Currently, the House and Senate are discussing legislation to enact this starting in 2020 but still have yet to hammer out the details or funding.
More broadly, there are also important questions about the future mission and direction of both Space Command and any Space Force. Unfortunately, some of the biggest proponents of the Space Force feel its primary mission should be supporting speculative activities in space, such as defending commercial mining on the Moon, developing space-based solar power or other similar endeavors, instead of supporting military operations on earth. That creates the risk that the Space Force would put too much effort into these unsubstantiated activities instead of addressing and fixing the actual military challenges that exist right now.
While some offensive capabilities are likely needed, putting too much emphasis on them would leave American satellites vulnerable to attack.
There is also an ongoing debate about the role of offensive weapons in defending U.S. space capabilities as opposed to increasing their resilience by making them harder to attack. While some offensive capabilities are likely needed, putting too much emphasis on them would leave American satellites vulnerable to attack, and their widespread use could create large amounts of space debris that would threaten everyone’s space activities for decades to come.
Bringing back Space Command and creating a Space Force can help address the underlying challenges the U.S. military faces in space, if they are done in the right way. They need to be instilled with a culture that can innovate, adapt quickly and be forward-looking without losing focus on addressing the high-priority challenges of today. They need to be able to increase the resilience of U.S. space capabilities to attacks and offensively disrupt adversary space capabilities without creating even bigger challenges down the road. Accomplishing all of this will require serious thought and a dedicated effort that extends beyond high-profile ceremonies, late-night comedy routines and political rallies.