The acting secretary of defense has called the proposed branch of the U.S. military — the Space Force — a “low cost, low bureaucracy” solution to evolving threats from Moscow and Beijing, defending it in Congress against skeptics who say the new branch would be a white elephant.
Speaking at a space symposium in Colorado Springs on April 9, Patrick Shanahan cited an assessment by the Defense Intelligence Agency this January saying that by next year, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is likely to deploy a laser defense system capable of targeting satellites in low orbit.
He also warned against possible cyberattacks against American space assets by Chinese and Russian hacking groups in the event of conflict as part of arguments in favor of creating a dedicated force to handle warfare beyond Earth’s atmosphere.
The Space Force was first suggested by the Trump administration last spring; months later, the president directed the Pentagon to “immediately begin the process necessary to establish a space force as the sixth branch of the armed forces.”
Initially, the Space Force would be a sub-branch within the U.S. Air Force, before transitioning to a full-fledged Department of the Space Force. A related organization, the Space Development Agency, would also be established to support and equip the force.
The Pentagon’s proposal for the branch was sent to Congress on March 1.
Proponents of the Space Force point to the past in support of their views, saying that other branches had been established belatedly, following setbacks on the battlefield. The last branch established by the U.S. military was the Air Force, which was formed from the U.S. Army Air Forces in 1947.
On the other side, some legislators and military officials have questioned the need for a full-fledged department and suggested that the bureaucracy would spiral out of control.
Jim Inhofe, a Republican senator from Oklahoma who chairs the Senate Armed Services Committee, acknowledged the growing threats, saying that space conflicts “would profoundly disrupt our society, which is heavily dependent upon satellite communication, positioning, navigation, and timing, and other vital space-based technology.” At the same time, he said he had “yet to get satisfactory answers” regarding the utility and costs of fielding an entirely new branch, the Washington Free Beacon reported on April 12.
The Pentagon estimates an initial cost of US$72 million for the Space Force, followed by US$1.6 billion over the next several years. The branch is expected to employ some 16,000 personnel.
At a Senate hearing on April 11 in Washington, Marine Corps Gen. Joseph Dunford testified that the United States had “an opportunity to look to the future and posture ourselves to seize and hold the high ground of space.”
Dunford, who is chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, noted that the modern U.S. military is heavily reliant on space-based assets for command and control, reconnaissance, and indirect weapons systems such as satellite-guided munitions.
The United States currently fields no space weapons, although a variety of assets could be upgraded to equip combat capabilities. The Air Force first tested an anti-satellite missile in the 1980s, conducting a test from an F-15 jet fighter.
Both China and Russia, which are America’s main rivals in the field of space militarization, have “weaponized space with the intent to hold American capabilities at risk,” Shanahan said. “… the next major conflict may be won or lost in space.”
Alhough the Chinese PLA has yet to match the American armed forces in terms of technology or capabilities, experts have been warning about the Chinese development of space weapons for years. In 2015, the University of California’s Institute on Global Conflict and Cooperation published a report noting the PLA’s testing and deployment of “assassin’s mace” solutions — crude but potentially devastating devices aimed at exploiting U.S. deficiencies to disable its space-based systems.
According to the Space Threat Assessment 2019, published by the CSIS Aerospace Security Project on April 4, Russia is still a significant player in the militarization of space despite falling behind China since the end of the Soviet Union in 1991. Russian satellites have been observed stalking U.S. satellites, and Moscow has been linked to GPS jamming in Norway near the Arctic Circle in 2017.
Pentagon officials like Shanahan and Dunford have presented a vision for an American presence in space that would mirror the U.S. Navy’s dominance over the seas. “Just as the U.S. Navy ensures freedom of navigation of the seas, America must now ensure the freedom to navigate the stars,” the two said in a joint statement.