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There’s a New Cold War Brewing in Space

Trump’s “Space Force” has support in Congress as China and Russia try to catch up, but the Air Force says it has the planet covered.

Trump speaks during an event at Marine Corps Air Station Miramar in San Diego on March 13.

Photographer: Patrick T. Fallon/Bloomberg

The commander-in-chief’s recent musings about forming a new military branch, a U.S. 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.”

The X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California in 2014, after completing 674 days in space.
Photographer: Boeing/SIPA/SPPFR via AP Photo

But in many ways, America already has a space-based military footprint. 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, demonstrating 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 blow-back for the Chinese government.)

The U.S. 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, not just the realm of commercial endeavors and private joy rides.

Even before Trump’s comments, the Defense Department was under orders to formulate a “concept of operations” document for space war fighting, due this June. That exercise will help to inform how the government develops and acquires new space capabilities, Air Force General John Hyten, commander of U.S. Strategic Command, said Tuesday.

“We must normalize space and cyberspace as warfighting 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 formalize an off-planet branch of the U.S. 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 U.S. space advantage is a key component of their strategy,” Kenneth Rapuano, an assistant secretary of defense, testified last week at a House budget hearing.

Lockheed's Space Based Infrared Systems satellite.
Source: Lockheed

Defense observers liken the potential of a new U.S. 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 centerpiece of national strategy, the U.S. Air Force was elevated to first among equals in military councils,” defense 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 warfighting 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 theater of conflict.

That complaint dates to at least 2000, when a commission led by former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld concluded that the U.S. 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 Defense 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 programs. 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 Defense Center, which protects U.S. space assets, moved from an “experiment” to a round-the-clock defense 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 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 that the U.S. and Russian space programs 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 U.S. launched its first satellite and was soon 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.

The flash created by Starfish Prime, as seen from an aircraft in 1962. 
Source: Los Alamos National Laboratory Follow

In 1963, Russia and the U.S. 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 U.S., 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 U.S. offensive weapons may be in space right now is classified. Still, it’s highly unlikely that the Pentagon or Kremlin have caught up to Hollywood’s terms for space conflict: A weaponized satellite that a 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, as to what types of weapons could eventually populate space, including metallic rods traveling 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 defense analyst with the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “I think it is inevitable.”

The problem for most governments with military satellite fleets, including the U.S., 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 and “high-powered microwave weapons” to interfere with satellites’ operations.

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