On June 18, U.S. President Donald Trump announced the establishment of a “space force” as the sixth branch of the United States military, “separate but equal” to the U.S. Air Force (USAF), which has overseen U.S. military space operations. Some have compared it to the moment when the USAF itself was established in September 1947, as a separate entity from the U.S. Army, of which it was, until then, a subordinate part.
By establishing a new branch of the U.S. military, Trump is sending a signal to countries like China and Russia that U.S. space assets will now have a “dedicated military branch” safeguarding them, and not simply a division within the USAF, the Air Force Space Command, established by Ronald Reagan in 1982. Previous administrations have considered augmenting U.S. space capabilities, to include establishing a “space corps” within the Department of the Air Force. Proponents of the idea had lobbied the U.S. Congress for years, to include several elected Representatives and Senators within Congress arguing that the United States needs to establish a “space corps” dedicated and trained only for outer space operations. The new force, the argument went, would be unburdened by USAF culture. with its doctrinal focus on the “air domain” and specific promotion requirements.
To address concerns about securing U.S. space assets, former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld created an Inter-agency Policy Coordinating Committee for Space within the National Security Council (NSC) and augmented the role of the Air Force Space Command. A report by the Commission to Assess United States National Security Space Management and Organization in 2001 stated that:
The security and economic well being of the United States and its allies and friends depend on the nation’s ability to operate successfully in space. To be able to contribute to peace and stability in a distinctly different but still dangerous and complex global environment, the U.S. needs to remain at the forefront in space, technologically and operationally, as we have in the air, on land and at sea. Specifically, the U.S. must have the capability to use space as an integral part of its ability to manage crises, deter conflicts and, if deterrence fails, to prevail in conflict.
The report recommended the establishment of a separate “Military Department of Space” as well as a “space corps” specifying that “[a] Space Department would provide strong advocacy for space and a single organization with the primary mission of providing forces for conducting both military and intelligence space operations.” While suggesting a “space corps” within the Department of the Air Force, the report cautioned that “a Corps within the Air Force would not eliminate the competition for resources between air and space platforms that exists within the Air Force today. Nor would it by itself alleviate the concerns of other Services and agencies over Air Force space resource allocations.”
Soon after China demonstrated its anti-satellite (ASAT) capability in 2007 by destroying its own aging Feng Yun 1C polar weather satellite with a kinetic kill vehicle, carried on a ballistic missile launched from the Xichang Space Center, the U.S. strategic community realized that U.S. space assets are vulnerable to adversarial strikes. For China, acquiring ASAT had been part of their national security thinking since the 1970s and the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) believed that acquiring such a technology offered them advantage, especially in an asymmetric situation. Thinkers within China like Wang Cheng noted in a July 5, 2000, article “The US Military’s ‘Soft Ribs,’ A Strategic Weakness,” that “For countries that can never win a war with the U.S. by using the method of tanks and planes, attacking the U.S. space system may be an irresistible and most tempting choice.”
The establishment of the PLA’s Strategic Support Force (SSF) in 2015 tasked specifically for space and cyber operations, meant that China was ahead of the U.S. in thinking of “space and cyber” as part of their military institutional innovation and modernization. Chinese President Xi Jinping, while inspecting the SSF in August 2016, stated that “the strategic support force is a new type of combat force to secure national security and an important aspect of the PLA’s joint operations system.”
Given this, it appears that the United States is now following in China’s footsteps of viewing space as a “war-fighting domain” especially with an eye toward “safe-guarding and securing” its space assets from a Chinese ASAT attack. Whether the establishment of a separate branch of the military will lead to any new military capability is something that could take years to determine. However, China’s increasing space capacity, including the ability to hack into U.S. weather service satellites, demonstrated in 2014, was perhaps one such wake-up call. There are growing concerns within the U.S. strategic community that China’s growing space capabilities, including their ability to orbit and map the moon, travel to the sun’s L2 point, and near-earth asteroids, as well as its stated ambitions for further deep space exploration and to mine space-based resources in the next 20-30 years, creates the urgent need for a dedicated “space force” to protect growing U.S. commercial interests in space.
Consequently, it is argued that the U.S. government, to include its military, is constitutionally obligated to protect not only military space assets but also commercial and U.S. private sector activities in the cislunar space (the volume within the Moon’s orbit.) To ensure that this is the case, the ability to not only develop cislunar situational awareness but also presence and be fully capable of enforcing laws is viewed as part of U.S. national interest. For instance, in 2015, the U.S. Congress passed the U.S. Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act, which entitled U.S. citizens to own space and asteroid resources as private property, acquired as per the law and international obligations. What happens if those legally derived entitlements are threatened by a rival nation or party? Who comes to their aid? The 2015 act states, “It is the sense of Congress that the Department of Defense plays a vital and unique role in protecting national security assets in space.”
The possible establishment of the “space force” now implies that not only is the force aimed at protecting military assets in space, but is futuristically aimed at developing capacity for securing peace and stability, once the cislunar space becomes a commercial hub of activity. This makes logical sense given the growing space capacities of U.S. private entities, to include SPACEX, Blue Origins, Planetary Resources, and Moon Express. China is not far behind either, encouraging their private companies like LandSpace and OneSpace, and working toward a permanent base on the moon, deep space exploration, as well as mining resources from outer space, to include space based solar power. In a report in the People’s Daily, Li Ming, a research fellow at the China Academy of Space Technology (CAST), asserted that “China now holds the leading position in the research of space-based solar power after decades of research which has narrowed the gap between itself and leading countries.”
Structurally, the direction to establish a “space force” implies that there will be a dilution of power within the U.S. Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, and Coast Guard, by adding another voice — the “space force.” Instead of dividing the U.S. defense budget essentially by thirds between the Department of the Air Force, Department of the Navy, and Department of the Army, this is likely to result in a four-way split, where space can argue for budget share directly against the other services. Consequently, this implies that the U.S. “space force” will have its own chain of command, not tied to the other branches of the military and their respective agendas, and will develop its own agenda, based on its independent budget and service headquarters. It can develop its own student curriculum, propelled by a singular mission of securing high space. Significantly, the USAF had placed their own pilots in charge of its space organizations; that is bound to change with the establishment of a separate branch.
Alabama Representative (R) Mike Rogers, the chairman of the House Armed Services Strategic Forces Subcommittee, and Ranking Member Tennessee Representative Jim Cooper (D) spearheaded the concept of a separate “space corps,” propelled by their belief that the U.S. military is losing ground to Russia and China in space by having its space programs tied to the Air Force. Rogers asserted that “[t]he Chinese literally have a space force today. Yet the Air Force would continue to force space to compete with F-35s. And we know who’s going to win that competition.”
There has been internal resistance to the establishment of a separate “space corp/force” from within the highest echelons of power in the USAF, to include the Chief of Staff of the Air Force Gen. David Goldfein, who stated that “If you’re saying the words separate and space in the same sentence, I would offer, you’re moving in the wrong direction.” He was supported in this view by Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson, who said in 2017, “The Pentagon is complicated enough. This will make it more complex, add more boxes to the organization chart and cost more money… If I had more money, I would put it into lethality, not bureaucracy.,”
In response, Rogers believed that it was this attitude of maintaining the status quo, despite adversaries making futuristic institutional changes, that has witnessed the U.S. lag behind in securing its space assets: “It was their approach to this that’s gotten us into this situation, and their insistence on maintaining the status quo is just mind-numbing.” Now with the commander-in-chief directing the Pentagon to start the process of establishing a “space force,” one wonders how long the resistance within the USAF can continue.
It is important to note, however, that while China’s Strategic Support Force (SSF) is one of the motivating factors behind the U.S. “space force,” other factors have caused its establishment: the necessity to maintain U.S. presence in outer space, like that of coast guards or the navies of the world, to ensure that stability and peace are maintained in the high seas and territorial waters so that free trade can flourish. With the heightened interest within China to mine space-based resources and encourage military reform to support their ambition of becoming the most advanced nation on space technology by 2045, it makes rational sense for the United States to follow suit given its own growing commercial interest in space. Institutionally, however, a key difference between the PLA’s SSF and the U.S. “space force” is that while the SSF clubs together space and cyber, the U.S. “space force” would be solely focused on space, implying that the U.S. does not link space and cyber. The separate development of space and cyber suggests that the United States going forward will see space less functionally and more geographically and will seek to develop space as an independent maneuver domain versus just an information medium.
Geopolitically, this will be a sign to other spacefaring nations that Washington is paying attention to and is willing to contest leadership in space — and that it is likely to grow in competence because of dedicated professionals and focus. This is likely to set a standard that may influence how others organize their space activities. Consequently, by announcing his decision to establish a “space force,” Trump took the opponents of such a move by surprise and followed through on his idea that he had first announced on March 13, 2018 during his speech to the personnel of the Marine Corp Air Station. We must now wait and see how the U.S. Senate responds to his proposal and whether his direction has bipartisan support there, as it did in the House of Representatives.
Dr. Namrata Goswami is a senior analyst and author. Her work on “Outer Space and Great Powers” was supported by the MINERVA Initiative Grant for Social Science Research. All views expressed here are her own.