Sixty years ago, a space race began between the United States and the Soviet Union. Spurred by the successful launch of Sputnik in 1957, America invested billions of dollars and the efforts of millions of Americans to dominate space. From Project Mercury’s manned space flight to the Apollo’s missions to the moon, the US has been successful in commanding space. There is a new challenger, however. China is developing weapons that could take out US space systems in a conflict. In response to this threat, the Trump Administration has proposed a US Space Force (USSF) to protect US interests in space. The USSF received a mixed reception in Washington, however, and faces a long road to its creation.
China is the world’s third largest space power behind the US and Russia. It spends some USD 11 billion a year on space, second only to the United States, indicating that China seeks space superiority. China’s 2015 White Paper states that “outer space and space have become the new commanding heights of strategic competition among all parties,” implying that space and cyberspace are new warfighting realms. In response, Chairman of the House Armed Services’ strategic forces subcommittee Representative Mike Rogers in 2017 proposed creation of a new branch of the military — a space force — to equip and train space soldiers. A year later, US President Trump directed the Pentagon to create the USSF as the sixth branch of the US Armed Forces.
The USSF will focus on finding a more effective way to defend US assets in space, including the vast satellites that American forces depend on for communications, navigation, and surveillance. This action comes amid growing concerns that China and Russia are working on ways to disable, disrupt or destroy US satellites. Earlier this year, US intelligence reported that China and Russia were pursuing “nondestructive and destructive” anti-satellite weapons for future war. Washington is increasingly concerned about cyberattacks that could target satellite technology, potentially leaving US troops in combat without electronic communications or navigation abilities. Despite Russia’s claims to avoid an arms race, Moscow has developed anti-satellite missiles and delivered the Peresvet mobile laser system to Russian forces in 2017. In October 2018, Russia deployed a satellite whose behavior was inconsistent with assurances that its purpose was to conduct in-orbit space inspections.
China has demonstrated daunting space capabilities. China has created a dual-use nature space program for civil-use technology that has military applications to cut cost and to mask an active military component. The US Department of Defense (DoD) reported that China has invested in “satellite communication, intelligence, reconnaissance, and satellite navigation” and investing in capabilities that will limit the communications and critical sensor technologies of its adversaries. In 2007, China launched a missile that reached 500 miles skyward until it destroyed China’s own defunct weather satellite. In 2013, Beijing tested a direct-ascent ASAT missile, the DN-2 that reached an altitude of 18,600 miles where many US reconnaissance satellites are located. In June 2016, the PLA launched the Aolong-1 spacecraft, a dual-use weapon that cleans up space junk and acts as an ASAT-weapon. In the last two years, China has not released its routine bi-annual defense white papers. Then-Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis viewed China’s actions as a calculated demonstration to the US of its destructive anti-satellite space capabilities.
The cost of the USSF remains speculative. The Air Force estimates a cost of USD 13 billion over the next five years to fund both the USSF and US Space Command.
Trump’s announcement of a USSF has been met with a mixed degree of support among US defense actors, national security agencies, Congress and members of the White House staff. Trump’s announcement took lawmakers and the Pentagon by surprise. In 2017, Mattis had vehemently opposed creating a new military service due to a need to focus on integrating joint warfighting functions and reducing costs. Following Trump’s 2018 USSF announcement, Mattis acquiesced with the Pentagon following his lead. The Joint Staff, DoD stakeholders and some influential members of Congress threw their support behind Mattis. For instance, Representatives Rogers and Jim Cooper climbed on board, arguing that Air Force officials had allowed US space capability atrophy. Then-Deputy Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan worked with Rogers, Cooper and President Trump on making USSF a reality, claiming that the military’s existing satellites were not designed to operate in the current environment, and that the United States needed more advanced systems. In March 2019, Acting Secretary of Defense Shanahan established the Space Development Agency (SDA), claiming that the US cannot appropriately match the pace of adversaries if it is not forward thinking. Despite a Republican-controlled Senate, current Senate Armed Services Committee chairman James Inhofe, usually a supporter of Trump, has not prioritized the USSF for the next National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) later this year. House Democrats oppose the DoD’s legislative proposal, while some Republicans believe that there is compelling bipartisan support.
In February 2019, the Pentagon proposed a new military service in its FY20-FY24 plan. Under this plan an undersecretary of the Air Force and Chief of Staff would lead the USSF, reporting to the Secretary of the Air Force. Initial USSF personnel will be a mixture of military and civilian personnel, with crucial military leadership positions filled by individuals from each military Department. By the end of FY24, 15,000 personnel from existing offices would transfer to the USSF. The USSF and US Space Combatant Command will also require substantial support from the Intelligence Community (IC), which will prioritize intelligence concerning space threats.
The USSF resembles and contrasts with President Ronald Reagan’s “Star Wars Initiative” (SDI) in some ways. Both programs focus on maintaining US dominance in space. The key difference between the two is Trump’s USSF focuses on providing a safe environment in space; Reagan’s SDI focused on creating a defense grid that would stop incoming missiles. Since USSF’s inception, Trump’s language focuses much more on defense. Trump has stated that his goal is to ensure that the US can detect and destroy any missile launched against it. Trump’s new defense budget includes reference to the study of the use of particle beams and lasers in space reminiscent of SDI, which imagined a space shield that would include particle beams and orbiting lasers to prevent missiles from hitting US targets. Some officials say that USSF is a replica of Reagan’s SDI.
The cost of the USSF remains speculative. The Air Force estimates a cost of USD 13 billion over the next five years to fund both the USSF and US Space Command. Acting Secretary Shanahan contends that the cost could be less than USD 5 billion. Trump’s FY2020 budget proposal includes USD 64 million for the USSF headquarters, USD 120 million for the SDA, and USD 84 million for US Space Command; USD 74 million of these costs will be transferred from existing accounts. The FY2020 will reflect defense as a priority while cutting non-defense spending by 5 percent below the cap. Requested cuts will also hit discretionary spending and several mandatory safety net programs, which will be politically unpalatable for many members of Congress.
Trump has given the concept of a US space force presidential imprimatur. On March 1, 2019, the US DoD sent a legislative proposal to Congress calling for the formal establishment of the Space Force. If Congress authorizes this request, the USSF would initially fall under the Department of the Air Force and later transition as a sixth branch of the military. With Trump’s backing, it took only 18 months for the Pentagon to produce the legislative proposal. Now that the proposal is before Congress, it will undergo intense scrutiny. Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee James Inhofe, doubts the need for USSF, raising concerns about the program’s cost and effectiveness. Congress is hesitant to commit to the forces’ creation and funding, and the discussion is certainly destined to be long and probing. The Trump administration’s three to five year timeline to establish the Space Force appears overly ambitious at this time.