US President Donald Trump’s mooted Space Force, which he suggested will be a “separate but equal” branch of the military, is vital to maintaining a tactical advantage over geopolitical adversaries, according to analysts and members of the US military.
Speaking at a space policy event at the White House Monday, Trump insisted that “we must have American dominance in space,” and announced he is “directing the Department of Defense and Pentagon to immediately begin the process necessary to establish the Space Force as the sixth branch of the armed forces.”
“We are going to have the Air Force and we are going to have the Space Force,” he said. “Separate but equal, it is going to be something so important.”
Space, he said, is “going to be important monetarily and militarily. We don’t want China and Russia and other countries leading us. We’ve always led – we’ve gone way far afield for decades now.”
The creation of a militarized space force is by no means a new concept. In the US, the development of an advanced space program has been a critical element of national security since the Eisenhower administration.
This process was accelerated during the Cold War, following the rapid expansion of the Soviet Union’s own satellite and space programs. Today, the United States is among a number of countries to maintain an advanced space program, utilizing technologies such as navigation satellites for military purposes.
On Wednesday, US Secretary of Defense James Mattis attempted to clarify that the US is “not weaponizing space – we are dealing with space as it’s developing.”
He said that establishing a Space Force would “require legislation and a lot of detail, planning and we have not yet begun,” adding that he planned to raise the matter with the administration’s national security adviser, John Bolton, later this week.
‘The ultimate high ground’
Speaking to CNN, military analyst US Lt. Col. Rick Francona (ret.) said that most US military leaders understand that the United States needs to be the dominant force in space to maintain its competitive edge.
“I hate the term ‘the final frontier’ but (space) is the ultimate high ground. Space doesn’t dominate one small geographic area – it dominates continents, oceans,” said Francona.
“Most military thinkers know this is the battle space of the future.”
In 1967, the US joined the Soviet Union in signing the Outer Space Treaty, an international set of agreements meant to prevent weapons of mass destruction from being placed in space.
What shape Trump’s Space Force will eventually take currently remains unclear, though any serious attempts to place weaponized systems into space will likely prove contentious.
“The US military relies heavily on space based operations, including communications, command and control, intelligence, surveillance, and all facets of operations,” said Francona.
“It’s essential (for US interests) that the US military has not only access to, but dominance of space.”
Following remarks made in May by Trump, US Rep. Mike Rogers, an Alabama Republican congressman who has long advocated for the inclusion of a separate branch of the military to defend American interests and defenses in space, told CNN that “Russia and China are surpassing us in space capabilities and we need to dedicate a separate force solely with a space mission.
“The future of war will be fought in space, and we must stay diligent and ahead of other countries for our own national security.”
There is some cause for urgency. Putin has boasted of Russian development of a hypersonic glide vehicle that can be launched into space, navigate on its own into Earth’s atmosphere and avoid radar and antimissile defenses.
Similarly, while Chinese officials have always stressed the country’s “peaceful motives” behind its space exploration and utilization China has developed and tested anti-satellite and antiballistic missile weapons, that analysts say could disrupt and destroy most US communication satellites.
A 2015 report prepared by the US Department of Defense suggested China was developing co-orbital anti-satellite systems to target US space assets.
“These systems consist of a satellite armed with a weapon such as an explosive charge, fragmentation device, kinetic energy weapon, laser, radio frequency weapon, jammer, or robotic arm,” read the report.
Responding to a question from CNN regarding Trump’s announcement Tuesday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Geng Shuang said that “Outer space is an asset shared by all mankind. China always advocates the peaceful use of outer space, and opposes the weaponization of outer space and space arms races.”
Asked whether the formation of the the US Space Force could spark a renewed space race, Geng said that China was “even more opposed to treating outer space as a battleground. We hope all sides will make a joint effort to earnestly preserve lasting peace and calm in outer space.”
At present, space weaponry broadly falls into three categories.
“Weapons from the ground that attack spaceborne assets, (such as) lasers to blind and interfere with satellites’ guidance; weapons in space that attack other assets in space; and space borne weapons attacking targets on earth,” said Francona.
According to Francona, there are only three powers capable of operating a space-based military presence: Russia, China and the US.
“Both Russia and China have acknowledged they are developing – or have developed – counter-space capabilities,” US Navy Adm. Cecil D. Haney said in 2015.
“Both countries have advanced directed energy capabilities that could be used to track or blind satellites, disrupting key operations, and both have demonstrated the ability to perform complex maneuvers in space.”
While the US was the first country to develop anti-satellite technology, back in the Kennedy era, much of this technology has fallen by the wayside, given an assumed dominance of space, said Brian Weeden, Technical Adviser for the Secure World Foundation, which promotes cooperative solutions for space sustainability and the peaceful uses of outer space.
Similarly, Russia’s programs atrophied at the end of the cold war but there’s now “evidence that they’re reconstituting them, and China is building its space capabilities, both offensive and defensive (from) reconnaissance satellites, communication satellites (and) evidence that it’s building ground launched anti-satellite missiles,” said Weeden.
Currently the US’ space operations are largely in a defensive posture, said Weeden, but with Chinese and Russian developments in the field some advocates of a stronger military presence, like US Rep. Mike Rogers, have argued that this may need to change.
Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson, has also said the US needs to embrace a new policy and make it clear that if command and control or warning satellites are targeted, the US “would consider that to be a hostile act” and respond.
“It’s probably time as a country that we start to talk about this,” said Wilson.
CNN’s Steven Jiang and Daniel Nikbakht contributed to this report.