What is the Space Force?

ORLANDO, FLORIDA – On Dec. 20, US President Donald J. Trump signed into existence the United States Space Force. This new branch of the US military falls under the Department of the Air Force, much like the Marines operate under the Department of the Navy. Will this move prove to make America stronger in space? Let’s examine the history, directive and possible missions of the Space Force, and find out.

Space Defence: A History

The military has been the biggest player in space policy since the beginning of the Space Age. The original rockets used in space launches were repurposed intercontinental ballistic missiles, meant to deliver nuclear payloads across vast distances. By simply changing the launch profile, that same technology could also deliver a payload to space. The United State’s space program began under the auspices of the US Army Air Forces and continued with the Air Force after it was made an independent branch in 1947. Each branch of the US armed services began to develop programs for space. The Army developed the Explorers satellite and began research through the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). The Navy built the first successful US space rocket, the Vanguard.

After the creation of NASA in 1958, the Army and the Navy were divested of several programs which now fell under the NASA administration, such as JPL and the Vanguard program, as well as the Navy’s developmental satellite tracking network. The Air Force lost control of a program called Man in Space Soonest, which was merged with Project Mercury. Despite these losses. the Air Force still retained control of many programs, including several reconnaissance programs (Corona and SAMOS) as well as several developmental rocket programs such as Titan, Thor, and Atlas.

Through the 1960’s and 70’s the Air Force retained control of the majority of Department of Defense space activities under several directorates, such as Strategic Air Command, Air Force Systems Command, the Aerospace Defense Center, and the Air Staff. In 1981, these activities were all centralized under the Air Force Space Command in Colorado.

The idea for a separate Space Force branch was brought up as early as 2001. It was recognized by the 2001 Space Commission that the Air Force effectively made space a secondary mission compared with air operations. The primary finding of the commission was that a Space Corps should be developed under the Department of the Air Force and eventually become its own independent branch of the military in the long run.

This idea came back to national attention in 2017 when Representatives  Mike Rogers (R-AL) and Jim Cooper (D-TN) proposed legislation which would accomplish the 2001 Space Commission’s goal. The bill passed the House, but was cut from the final bill in negotiations with the Senate. In March 2018, President Trump proposed a Space Force while giving a speech. In June 2018, the President directed the Secretary of Defense to begin the process of establishing the Space Force as a sixth branch of the military.

On Dec. 20, the President signed the 2020 National Defence Appropriations Act into law, thereby establishing and funding the US Space Force. The first Chief of Space Operations is Air Force General John “Jay” Raymond, former head of US Space Command and the Air Force Space Command. With the establishment of the Space Force, approximately 16,000 Air Force active duty and civilian personnel will be shifted from the Air Force to the Space Force over an 18-month period.

What Will the Space Force Do?

The Space Force takes its directive from Space Policy Directive-4 which dictates six missions:

  • Protect US and other responsible actors’ assets in space
  • Ensure unfettered access to space for the US and her allies for military and economic use
  • Deter aggression and hostile acts in and from space for the US and allies
  • Ensure needed space capabilities are available for all US combat commands
  • Project national power to and from space
  • Develop a community of individuals focused on national security concerns in the space domain

So, what does this mean? The Space Force is thought of as a separate military entity that will protect and defend US interests in space, according to applicable law, including international space law codified in the UN Space Treaty of 1967. While it seems that this would be an affront to that space law, as long as no nuclear weapon is placed in orbit, the US would be operating at the edges of that law.

Why Do We Need Space Force?

The development of a Space Force is a natural evolution as technology allows greater access to space for all humanity. Having a Space Force to actually enforce space law can be seen as a good thing in this case. In the beginnings of the Space Force, I can see the program being used to document all anti-satellite interceptor technologies and work with the State Department to develop treaties which limit or remove their use. Space Force should also further develop space junk tracking and, eventually, removal technologies. A Kessler syndrome cascade event (where one collision in space creates more stuff, which creates more collisions, until vast areas of near-Earth space become inaccessible) continues to be a distinct possibility with the amount of uncontrolled stuff orbiting the earth. The removal of this “junk” would definitely fall under “protecting access to space”.

Map of all known space junk and dead satellites in orbit as of 2018. Image credit: NASA

Some in the space community have theorized that such a Space Force could allow for greater development of programs to protect the Earth from asteroids, and that would be an excellent use of the funding provided, as Near Earth Object (NEO) searches have been woefully underfunded since their inception. NASA funds several NEO detection teams which has purportedly found over 90% on NEOs over 1 km in size, and a “good fraction” of objects over 140 meters in size. For comparison, the asteroid which created a 300 megaton airburst leveled forests, and injured 1,500 people and caused $30 million in damage in Chelyabinsk, Russia in 2013 was approximately 20 meters in diameter. The asteroid that caused the extinction of the dinosaurs was thought to be between 11 and 81 km in diameter. However, even if all these potential impactors are identified, there still exists no system by which to protect the earth from them. This would be an excellent area of development for a Space Force, perhaps repurposing ASAT ballistic interceptors for asteroid interception and deflection.

Chelyabinsk asteroid exploding over the city with a force of 300 megatons, or 50 times the power of the Hiroshima nuclear bomb. (Image credit: Wikipedia Commons)

Closing Remarks

I, for one, think that Space Force is a good thing. While many people poo poo the idea, as most of these functions have fallen under the Air Force for many years, any funds that get funneled into space technologies is a good thing. NASA receives .49% of the national budget, while the Department of Defense receives 15% of that same budget. If the creation of the Space Force means more funding, then space technologies will prosper as a result. While the weaponization of space is not a desirable outcome, and is very much contrary to space law, the idea behind the Space Force still means more funding, which is desperately needed if humanity is to become of space faring species.