"Space is a war-fighting domain." It's a mantra that U.S. officials have been stating ever since the Chinese blew up their own weather satellite during an anti-satellite missile test in 2007. Eleven years on, it's a phrase that U.S. President Donald Trump repeated in March in making the case for the creation of a Space Force. Although there is a growing awareness of the militarization of space — and that the area around Earth is indeed a potential theater of war — the Space Force debate remains a predominantly bureaucratic and organizational one. But while enhanced defense in space is important, it alone will not solve the root danger of the growing risk of an extraterrestrial war among terrestrial powers.
Earth's immediate environs have become vital for humanity, and critical in particular to the world economy and the telecommunications network that supports it. Accordingly, it is important to avoid a war in space, especially since debris from destroyed satellites would cause massive collateral damage to other objects in orbit around our planet. Avoiding conflict in space, however, will require both a sound defense policy and a concerted international diplomatic effort.
Grabbing the Final High Ground
Beyond being just the final frontier, space is also the ultimate high ground. It not only provides the best possible vantage point to surveil activity on earth, it also greatly facilitates navigation, communication, targeting, and command and control. For the past 70 years, the U.S. military has leaned heavily on space as a force multiplier, integrating it as a critical component of its joint war-fighting capabilities thanks to technological advances in sensors and satellites. Today, U.S. space infrastructure is so vital to the country's military operations that it has become practically indispensable. But this reliance on space has also become a vulnerability — a dynamic that has not escaped the attention of competitors and adversaries such as China and Russia, which have also bolstered their own space capabilities over the past two decades.
Driven by these trends, the U.S. military has focused on improving its defenses in space so it can better defend against and counter an attack on its space assets. In short, the United States — along with its adversaries — now views space as a war-fighting domain similar to the land, air, and sea domains.
Time for a New Service?
This is where the debate over a Space Force comes in. The United States has four military services (the Army, Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps) under the auspices of the Department of Defense whose primary responsibilities are to train, organize and equip their forces. A fifth branch of the armed forces, the Coast Guard, is under the Department of Homeland Security. Until now, the Air Force has primarily overseen the national security aspects of space through the Air Force Space Command, which was established in 1982, but the creation of a Space Force would result in a sixth branch of service.
The main driver behind the creation of a Space Force is the idea that the U.S. Air Force is unable to provide as much capability in space as an independent and specialized service would provide. In general, proponents of a new force have argued that the Air Force has not done enough to prioritize space and that its other missions distract it from its focus on the world above. Specifically, such commentators have criticized the Air Force for devoting too little money to space, acting too slowly in acquiring materials for space, failing to promote its personnel involved with the space mission and, finally, dismissing space as a domain in which to wage war. Air Force leaders and their supporters have acknowledged the veracity of some of the issues but suggested that the best way of solving the matter is not to create an entirely new service that will drive up costs and create overhead, but to implement reforms within the Air Force to better enable it to tackle the space mission. In effect, it's not so much a debate centered on the merits of added defenses in space as it is a debate over bureaucracy and organization.
And in a case of history repeating itself, it's also a debate that is familiar to the Air Force, seeing as the institution experienced a similar tug of war before it became the United States' newest service after World War II. The argument was so fierce that it even resulted in the court-martialing of Brig. Gen. Billy Mitchell (widely regarded as the father of the U.S. Air Force) in 1925 after he vehemently accused the Army and Navy leadership of failing to prioritize air power. The crucible of World War II, however, demonstrated to all that the Air Force not only had its own distinct strategic and operational concepts but that it also could directly affect combat as much as other services could (especially thanks to strategic bombing and the advent of the nuclear bomb).
Space Force is not so much a debate centered on the merits of added defenses in space as it is a debate over bureaucracy and organization.
As U.S. officials weigh the merits of creating a Space Force independent of the Air Force, questions regarding cost (it might cost more than $10 billion just to establish the service), congressional oversight and organizational inertia ensure that the process will remain slow and subject to much discussion. What is clear, however, is that the country's leaders will devote more attention to space in the years to come. At present, the United States relies on 10 unified commands with distinct geographic and functional areas of responsibility that are not directly tied to any service for the country's joint war-fighting needs. To that end, authorities would likely create a unified command (similar to U.S. Strategic Command that deals with nuclear deterrence) to focus solely on space before considering the formation of a standalone Space Force.
Whatever organization ends up taking the lead in space, the United States will significantly increase its attention and funding for the national security mission in space. Beyond the use of space for navigation, communication, command and control, and surveillance, the country is also assuming the mission to deter and even fight a war in space. Such a task requires the country to track more foreign satellites, defend its own satellites from attack, counter with its own attacks if necessary and even take advantage of space's perch as the ultimate high ground — potentially to deploy ballistic missile defenses. In fact, the 2019 National Defense Authorization Act requires the U.S. military to not only begin work on developing new warning satellites to spot ballistic missiles but also to develop weapons to intercept the incoming projectiles from space.
Taking Earth's Battles Outside
The U.S. move to beef up its defenses in space is understandable given the increasing attention the frontier is receiving from its closest competitors, China and Russia. Both countries continue to develop their anti-satellite capabilities, including specialized maneuvering satellites that could be deployed to either conduct repairs on other satellites or interfere with them in a nefarious way. Nevertheless, in the absence of parallel diplomatic efforts and a wider comprehensive strategy to establish international standards for conduct in space, the U.S. move to strengthen its defenses in space could drive the Russians and the Chinese to accelerate their own space militarization efforts. For instance, the United States could technically use interceptors, which are essential to a space-based ballistic missile defense system, to destroy other satellites — a fact that is bound to drive Beijing and Moscow to establish their own deterrents in space in the absence of significant transparency or agreements.
Because any space conflict would produce large amounts of space debris that would ruin the orbiting assets of all countries -– and devastate the world economy in the process -– the only way to win a war in space is to not fight one.
The 1967 Outer Space Treaty is the world's foundational and governing document on space. The agreement bars members (including the United States, Russia and China) from placing nuclear weapons in space and mandates only non-military activity on the moon and other celestial bodies. The pact does not, however, enact restrictions on the placement of conventional weapons in space, and subsequent efforts to impose such limits, including the 2006 Space Preservation Treaty, have failed.
Such blanket treaties are unlikely to succeed in the foreseeable future because of their significant limitations, as well as concerns over the ability to verify compliance. The United States has especially voiced concern in this regard, repeatedly voting down such initiatives in addition to noting that the treaties fail to take into account the ability of terrestrial anti-satellite weapons to damage space assets. Nevertheless, the dim prospect of any blanket ban on weapons in space should not limit the effort to engage in transparency and confidence-building measures, which could provide a foundation for more narrow arms control agreements that limit specific aspects of the increasing militarization of space or the scope of such activities over the long term.
Whether or not U.S. defense in space is best served by the creation of a new service is an organizational question that will attract debate over the next few years both inside and outside the military. What the question does not address is the need to incorporate a simultaneous and concerted effort to establish international norms in space to prevent a destabilizing, militarized space race. Because any space conflict would produce large amounts of space debris that would ruin the orbiting assets of all countries — and devastate the world economy in the process — the only way to win a war in space is to not fight one. To that end, space should increasingly be seen through a prism akin to that of nuclear deterrence in which the ultimate aim is to prevent a space war from ever occurring. There is a vital need to build up a defensive capacity to deter an attack in space, but this capacity should be tempered by outer space treaties and norms in much the same way as arms control agreements have played a vital role in restricting nuclear arsenals. The future of the world and its neighborhood depends on it.