What is the Space Force?

What is the Space Force?
Source: Alex Brandon

In December 2019, as part of a US$738 billion defense bill, President Donald Trump unveiled the sixth branch of the United States military, called the Space Force. It is the newest addition to the military since the Air Force in 1947.

The Space Force exists as a department within the Air Force, but has separate representation at the Joint Chiefs of Staff, a body of senior military officials that advises the president on matters related to national security.

This setup is similar to that of the Marine Corps, which exists within the Department of the Navy but has its own representation within the Joint Chiefs of Staff and acts with a certain level of autonomy within the department.

According to the law that enshrined the creation of the Space Force, the agency will have three overarching duties: to protect the interests of the United States in space, to deter aggression in, from and to space, and to conduct space operations.

Strong reactions

While many have mocked the idea of a Space Force, some in the military establishment have been more welcoming.

For Steven Kwast, a retired Air Force general and former commander of the Air Education and Training Command at Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph, the need for a Space Force is urgent.

“Throughout the history of mankind, at least everything we can read and understand, technology has always changed world power,” Kwast said in a speech at Hillsdale College’s DC campus last December.

“The reason space is so powerful is not that it just has a military application like a machine gun,” he said, “it’s because it will transform the four major engines of economic growth that have been consistent throughout mankind: transportation, manufacturing, and […] energy.”

Other analysts have been more skeptical. Before the official establishment of the agency, Micheal O’Hanlon, a foreign policy expert at the Brookings Institution, an American think tank, argued that a Space Force would be a misguided idea.

“U.S. military services all have strong warrior cultures that emphasize offensive weapons and decisive lethal operations,” he wrote in 2019. “This is as it should be. But it is not clear that the same attitude is optimal for space operations.”

Instead of directing American involvement in space toward science and exploration, O’Hanlon suggests that a Space Force could undermine the need for a non-aggressive approach.

“We should attempt restraint wherever possible in weaponizing space, which is still humanity’s last great frontier,” he said.

Russia and China

What is the Space Force?
Source: NAOC

Proponents of the Space Force point to the fact that Russia and China have already shown a willingness to weaponize aspects of their space operations.

A US intelligence assessment from 2018 claims that both countries would have the technology to shoot down American satellites within the next several years, not only potentially endangering military targets, but also GPS and civilian communication.

According to the US Defense Intelligence Agency, China and Russia already have “robust” intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities in space. Space Force advocates warn that the US risks getting left behind if it does not develop adequate space capabilities of their own.

“We could be deaf, dumb, and blind within seconds,” said Representative Jim Cooper, a House Democrat from Tennessee, in reference to the consequences of American adversaries gaining a military edge in space technology.

Critics believe that such scenarios are far from guaranteed, arguing that if American military power becomes normalized in space, tensions between competing nations would likely increase, making space more dangerous over the long term.

“It’s not just Trump’s rhetoric about dominance in space that is harmful,” argued Laura Grego, a  senior scientist in the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) Global Security Program.

“Resources for the new military service will be provided to ‘deter aggression in, from, and to space.’ This will create incentives within the national security bureaucracy to hype the threat of space weapons, and to then build new weapons to counter them.”

What’s next?

The new agency is making efforts to raise its profile, and earlier this year unveiled its uniforms and logo. Some 16,000 Air Force personnel have already been transferred over to the agency to help jumpstart operations.

The Space Force has even started recruiting, going so far as to air an advertisement to increase public interest. The department is seeking to recruit active Air Force servicemen and women and started to accept transfer applications on May 1.

According to reports on an official presentation given to new recruits, some of the threats that the Space Force might deal with in the future include electronic warfare, cyberattacks, kinetic energy weapons, orbital threats, ground site attacks and nuclear detonation in space.

One of the Space Force’s first projects appears to be related to surveillance.

It was reported that two private companies, Raytheon and Northrop Grumman/Ball Aerospace, have been selected to compete over an infrared system for a missile warning satellite set for launch in 2025.

“Both teams have made incredible progress in developing potential next generation sensors for this critical national defense system,” said Joe Rickers, the program director for Lockheed Martin’s satellite team.

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