Spot.IM Contributor

Aug 16, 20184m read

The Space Force, Down to Earth

By Ben Szurek

Standing behind a podium in June, President Donald Trump announced a seemingly radical move for America’s Armed Forces: the development of a sixth branch of the military, devoted to operations in space. More succinctly, Trump announced that he would be creating the Space Force.

Immediately, the idea struck many as ridiculous — beginning with the name, which sounds like something from the world of science fiction. But last Thursday, Vice President Mike Pence gave a speech grounding the grand idea in actual details. What is clear from Pence’s speech: the Space Force is real, and it will likely come to fruition by 2020.

Contrary to the fancies of a Sci-Fi fan like myself, the proposed Space Force will seek not to conquer alien worlds, but to address a vulnerable point in our national defense. Like most modern countries, America relies heavily on satellites in space for a number of everyday operations, both military and civilian. An attack on American satellites and subsequent loss of global positioning systems (GPS) could leave our military blind at inopportune moments, unable to locate either enemies or their own units. On home soil, such an attack could render our beloved smartphones basically useless. More significantly, it could raise a host of issues in the supply chain, leading to shortages across the country.

Given the centrality of satellites to our overall security, there is general agreement on the need to bolster defenses of American space assets. Where parties disagree is the question of how to implement such improvements.

The White House’s proposed Space Force constitutes the most dramatic plan of action for space defense on the table. Based on Pence’s Thursday speech, the Space Force would establish a central command for monitoring threats to space assets, and it would feature a new special force of “space warfighters.” Outside of the White House, the proposal has garnered support from people like Sen. Ted Cruz and NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine, as well as tepid support from Neil deGrasse Tyson, the famous astrophysicist. Support from military officials, however, has wavered since Trump’s June announcement. U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis initially expressed concerns about the proposal — a position he has now reversed. Similarly, former Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James suggested that making the Space Force an entirely new branch of the military would introduce a myriad of logistical problems, making the move more a bureaucratic nightmare than an effective solution.

The Air Force currently assumes the responsibilities of monitoring space and protecting American assets. The development of the Space Force would primarily transfer those responsibilities, and tack on the many challenges of creating an entirely new branch of the military — something that has not happened since the birth of the Air Force itself in 1947. But supporters of the Space Force argue that the strategic importance of space makes that effort worthwhile. To highlight our current vulnerability, they point to technological advancements by our biggest rivals.

Since the Space Race, which ended just under 50 years ago with the first moon landing by American astronauts, Russia has served as America’s chief competition in space. China joined them later, and both countries now pose the greatest threats to American space assets. At the present moment, China leads the world in the development of hypersonic weapons; Russia, meanwhile, holds both hypersonic weapons and intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs).

Falling behind Russia and China is a daunting proposition, particularly when tensions with both countries appear to be on the rise, as a trade war mounts with China and American Intelligence agencies find more and more evidence of Russian interference in our elections. However, the threats to American space presence remain more potential than actual. Russia is one of our chief rivals in space, but they are also one of our main collaborators. Since NASA decommissioned the space shuttle in 2007, American astronauts have used Russian rockets to get to the International Space Station.

More than a reaction to an immediate crisis, the proposed Space Force represents a long-term investment. Beyond the military, the country at large is turning to space. Last week saw the selection of nine astronauts to fly a space mission in an American-made rocket for the first time in eleven years. This, courtesy of Elon Musk’s SpaceX, which appears to have edged out Boeing in a domestic space race to see which commercial company will be the first to achieve space flight. Meanwhile, NASA has also spent the summer discovering a possible underground lake on Mars, working on the highly anticipated James Webb Space Telescope, and, most recently, launching the Parker Solar Probe.

As American holdings gravitate ever closer to space, American defense will, necessarily, invest more in the protection of space assets. The Space Force proposal constitutes the first step in that direction, but the debate over implementation has a lot more ground to cover.

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