Report

Space Force Is Trump’s Answer to New Russian and Chinese Weapons

But creating a new service branch is seen as a slap in the face to the Air Force.

U.S. Vice President Mike Pence delivers opening remarks during the National Space Council's first meeting at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum's Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center on October 5, 2017. (Photo by Joel Kowsky/NASA via Getty Images)
U.S. Vice President Mike Pence delivers opening remarks during the National Space Council's first meeting at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum's Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center on October 5, 2017. (Photo by Joel Kowsky/NASA via Getty Images)

The United States’ decision to establish a new military service to oversee American operations in space reflects a growing concern in Washington over the development of sophisticated new weapons by Russia and China.

“Our adversaries have transformed space into a warfighting domain already. And the United States will not shrink from this challenge,” said Vice President Mike Pence during a speech at the Pentagon on Thursday.

The primary aim of establishing a sixth armed service—the others being the Air Force, Army, Coast Guard, Marine Corps, and Navy—is to accelerate the development and deployment of new technologies for space warfighting, Deputy Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan told reporters during an engagement after the rollout.

But the intent is not to militarize space; rather it is to avert a potentially disastrous conflict, said Todd Harrison, an analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. If the United States leaves its satellites vulnerable to new Russian and Chinese weapons, the likelihood that these weapons will be used increases, he argued.

“Space has been used for military purposes from the beginning, so it is arguably already fully militarized,” Harrison said. “What is increasing the potential for conflict in space is what other countries are doing to counter our existing space capabilities.”

Pence outlined how potential adversaries, particularly Russia and China but also Iran and North Korea, have recently invested heavily in new weapons that could threaten U.S. satellites, which are crucial to maintaining navigation and communications capabilities around the world.

“In 2007, China launched a missile that tracked and destroyed one of its own satellites—a highly provocative demonstration of China’s growing capability to militarize space,” Pence said. Meanwhile, he noted, “Russia has been designing an airborne laser to disrupt our space-based system. And it claims to be developing missiles that can be launched from an aircraft mid-flight to destroy American satellites.”

Both countries have demonstrated the ability to maneuver their satellites in “close proximity” to U.S. assets, posing “unprecedented new dangers,” Pence stressed.

The announcement of a detailed plan to establish the new Space Force, including seeking the necessary congressional authorization, comes almost two months after President Donald Trump first announced the initiative.

The rollout, which took place in the Pentagon’s main auditorium with Secretary of Defense James Mattis making the introduction, appears to indicate that the military is on board with the plan—despite repeated prior objections by Mattis himself.

But the move is widely seen as a slap in the face to the U.S. Air Force, specifically the U.S. Air Force Space Command, which currently overseas most military space operations. Prominent Air Force officials, such as Secretary Heather Wilson and Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein, have previously spoken out against the creation of a separate space branch.

Brian Weeden, the director of program planning for the Secure World Foundation, a space policy think tank, believes one of the driving factors behind the move to create the Space Force is that the Air Force has not responded quickly or strongly enough to emerging threats. (Weeden is also a former Air Force officer.)

“Let’s put it this way, in 2011 the Obama administration released a national security space strategy that outlined steps to make space forces more resilient and deter attacks. It’s hard to name a specific change or program that was done as a result of that to meet that direction, seven years later,” Weeden said.

But one former senior Air Force official disagreed that the Air Force is to blame, instead laying responsibility on congressional budget cuts and slow decision-making by the Office of the Secretary of Defense.

The former official said the creation of a separate Space Force will create more red tape, not less.

“This is really not needed for what ails the space business right now,” the former official said. “The problem is not organization; the problem is not operations; the problem is acquisition … instead we are kind of rearranging deck chairs.”

It’s not just the Air Force that is getting its toes stepped on. The Navy and Army also have substantial space forces that would likely be pulled into the new service, Harrison said. Intelligence agencies that have space capabilities, such as the National Reconnaissance Office, and missile defense forces such as the Missile Defense Agency might get swept into Space Force as well, he added.

The next hurdle will be to convince Congress. As the vice president was speaking, the Pentagon sent Congress a detailed report on the establishment of the Space Force. The chairman and ranking member of the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Strategic Forces—Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Ala.) and Rep. Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.)—lauded the initiative in a joint statement.

“We have been warning for years of the need to protect our space assets and to develop more capable space systems. We are glad that the Pentagon is finally taking these steps in enhancing our space strength,” they wrote.

Lara Seligman is Foreign Policy's Pentagon correspondent. @laraseligman

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