Support Intelligent, In-Depth, Trustworthy Journalism.
On Monday, President Donald Trump met with the National Space Council so he could sign an executive order meant to manage and clean up junk in space. This important policy milestone was overshadowed by the fervor surrounding Trump’s request for a “Space Force.”
“When it comes to defending America, it is not enough to merely have an American presence in space. We must have American dominance in space,” Trump said at the event. “We are going to have the Air Force and we are going to have the Space Force. Separate but equal.”
Trump asked the Department of Defense and the Pentagon to “immediately begin the process” of creating a sixth independent branch of armed forces dedicated to space warfare, but the creation of such a service lands just outside of his presidential powers, according to three experts who spoke with the PBS NewsHour.
Only Congress can create a new branch of the military, so lawmakers would need to introduce and approve legislation establishing a space force, but the Pentagon has expressed reluctance over the idea.
This discord sets a major hurdle for creating a space force as Trump sees it. Still, American involvement in space warfare may be inevitable.
The motivation for a space force centers around China and Russia, said Laura Grego, a physicist and global security expert with the Union of Concerned Scientists. Both nations have been ramping up their development of technologies that could be used to target satellites.
If you’re expecting storm troopers and X-wings, think again.
Subscribe to our Science Newsletter to explore the wide worlds of science, health and technology.
Thank you. Please check your inbox to confirm.
Anti-satellite weapons fall into two general categories: those that interfere and those that destroy. So far, confirmed weapons in both of these categories are ground-based.
Interference weapons include things like satellite jammers, which drown out communication signals, or lasers that blind satellites. These non-destructive weapons are relatively low-tech, but effective.
“Russia has GPS and satellite communications jammers deployed in Eastern Ukraine as part of their combat activities there,” said Brian Weeden, director of program planning for the Secure World Foundation, a space policy center. “The whole point of that is to interfere with the Ukrainians ability to use GPS and communications.”
Destructive anti-satellite weapons pose an escalating threat. In 2007, China launched a ground-based missile, traveling nearly 18,000 miles per hour, to blow up a weather satellite in low Earth orbit — a mere 500 miles above ground. News outlets described the event as China flexing its muscles, but in truth, the country was decades behind.
A Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) interceptor is launched during a successful intercept test. THAAD provides the U.S. military a land-based, mobile capability to defend against short- and medium-range ballistic missiles, intercepting incoming missiles inside and outside the earth’s atmosphere. Photo by REUTERS/U.S. Department of Defense, Missile Defense Agency/Handout via Reuters
For decades, American and Russian (Soviet) missile defense systems have been built to destroy ballistic warheads, and thus, able to intercept objects hurtling through low-earth orbits, Grego said. Soon after the China test, Operation Burnt Frost, conducted during the Bush administration in 2008, used a Navy missile to knock out a defunct spy satellite.
U.S. officials claimed Burnt Frost was not a response to China. But it may have set off an arms race. Russia continues to advance its anti-satellite missiles through its PL-19 Nudol program. And the U.S., Russia and China are developing the next stages of their destructive space armory: proximity satellites, which could, in theory, immobilize a satellite without blasting it into smithereens.
“We’ve been docking [spacecrafts] in space for decades. But that’s between two cooperating objects,” Grego said. “Proximity operations assume that the object you’re approaching is not cooperating. That’s another leading edge of anti-satellite warfare.”
That makes space warfare more tantalizing because blowing up a satellite has never been a great option. When a missile hits a war plane, the destruction is confined — the wreckage falls within a contained area. When China detonated its weather satellite, the explosion created an uncontrollable cloud of more than 3,000 pieces of debris, which could have damaged other satellites including its own.
The Union of Concerned Scientists lists 1,459 operating satellites, though another 11,600 float around Earth as space junk. Click here for an interactive. Image by ERIS
But remember: The vast majority of people and objects in space are not military. Before space battles happen, the armed forces must develop a fundamental strategy — or doctrine — that ensures they can fight enemies without threatening our own space infrastructure.
“There is no unified theory of space warfare to address those issues,” said retired Air Force Lieutenant General David Deptula, who now directs the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies. “That’s why space warfare doctrine and strategy need to be established to look at the consequences of how one conducts warfare in space and the consequences for civilians.”
Trump isn’t alone in wanting a space force, or at least in wanting to prioritize American military activities in space.
“There are some in Congress who are upset that the U.S. Air Force has not taken more steps to make its capabilities more resilient to space weapons made by Russia and China should there be a future conflict,” Weeden said.
Right now, nearly all U.S. military space activities fall under the Air Force. The Army, Navy and agencies like the National Reconnaissance Office pitch in, but the Air Force leads the way with an unclassified space budget hovering around $11 billion. Next time you use Google Maps or any GPS-backed app, thank the Air Force.
U.S. Air Force Major Paul “Loco” Lopez performs in an F-22 Raptor during the AirPower Over Hampton Roads JBLE Air and Space Expo at Joint Base Langley-Eustis, Virginia, U.S. May 18, 2018. Photo by U.S. Air Force/Staff Sgt. Areca T. Bell/Handout via REUTERS.
Last June, the House Armed Services Committee, led by Mike Rogers, R-Ala., and Jim Cooper, D-Tenn., pitched the idea of a “Space Corps” as an addendum to the National Defense Authorization Act.
The amendment, which passed in the House, would create “a space core within the Air Force to fix the fragmented space acquisition process.” Their proposal would also consolidate all space operations under a subunified command, mirroring what the U.S. did in 2009 for cybersecurity with the formation of U.S. Cyber Command.
But the Senate shot down the space corps provision in November, in part because of resistance from the Pentagon. Both Defense Secretary James Mattis and Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson publicly opposed the plan.
“It’s really important to ensure that any new space force maximizes military effectiveness,” Lt. General Deptula said. “Progress in that regard could be hindered by prematurely setting up a segregated, organizational stove pipe. If you segregate space from today’s aerospace enterprise, what that might do is undermine synergy.”
An unmanned Delta 4 Heavy rocket lifts off from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California August 28, 2013. The rocket put a classified satellite into orbit for the National Reconnaissance Office. Photo by REUTERS/Gene Blevins
On the flip side, a space corps or space force could ensure that space combat becomes a bigger priority on the Pentagon’s agenda. Plus, the Air Force’s Space Command maintains around 36,000 service members worldwide, meaning it is already about half the size of smallest branch of the armed services — the U.S. Coast Guard.
Last winter, after the idea for the space corps failed in the Senate, Congress settled on a compromise, commissioning an independent study of the conditions that would call for a space force.
At that point, “Trump probably got briefed on this issue and either got a preview of where they’re headed or decided that he wants to make the decision now,” Weeden said — hence, the space force announcement this week.
On Wednesday at a campaign rally in Duluth, Minnesota, Trump said: “And I think you saw the other day, we’re reopening NASA. We’re going to be going to space.” The crowd cheered “Space Force. Space Force. Space Force.”
Trump: “We’re reopening NASA.”Crowd chants back, “SPACE FORCE!”
— Yamiche Alcindor (@Yamiche) June 21, 2018
Trump: “We’re reopening NASA.”Crowd chants back, “SPACE FORCE!”
— Yamiche Alcindor (@Yamiche) June 21, 2018
So what role will NASA play in a space force?
“Nothing. They’re a civil, peaceful organization,” Weeden said. “They’re going to go do their own stuff.”
Though NASA is not part of the Department of Defense, the agency does occasionally share aeronautics research and resources with the Air Force. Lt. General Deptula said NASA may continue to feed these minor elements to a space force.
Resistance in the Pentagon appears to continue. In response to Trump’s announcement, Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson issued a letter, obtained by Ars Technica, that said the pursuit of a space force would be “a thorough, deliberate, inclusive process. As such, we should not expect any immediate moves or changes.”
The Outer Space Treaty, ratified in 1967, bans the placement of weapons of mass destruction in space and deems the “Moon and other celestial bodies shall be used exclusively for peaceful purposes.”
The United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V 541 launches the NROL-35 mission for the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) at the Vandenberg Air Force Base in California December 12, 2014. Photo by REUTERS/Gene Blevins
Weapons development by the U.S., China and Russia challenge these stipulations. Fears of falling behind in this technology race led Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld in 2001 to warn of the possibility of a Space Pearl Harbor.
In response to Trump’s remarks, Russia officials said if the U.S. withdraws from the Outer Space Treaty, their nation and other states would follow “with a tough response aimed at ensuring global security.” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang responded to Trump’s directive by saying “we oppose turning outer space into a battlefield.”
Unless such an attack happens tomorrow, the Pentagon will likely continue to take its time with developing a space doctrine. Lt. General Deptula added that it took early airmen about 20 to 30 years to develop the doctrine for air warfare.
“The creation of a independent armed Space Force is not really a question of if, it’s a question of when,” Lt. General Deptula said. “But right now, the time is premature.”
Nsikan Akpan is the digital science producer for PBS NewsHour and co-creator of the award-winning, NewsHour digital series ScienceScope.
Support Provided By:
Support PBS NewsHour:
Subscribe to Here’s the Deal, our politics newsletter for analysis you won’t find anywhere else.