The U.S. military will soon have a sixth branch focused on warfare in space, after President Donald Trump signed an executive order on June 18 directing the Department of Defense to create the Space Force.
The decision will overrule plans that were pending in the Fiscal Year 2019 National Defense Authorization Act that would have created a Space Corps as a sub branch of the Air Force, the option that Congress was leaning toward.
According to one of the leading experts on weaponry and military threats in space, Trump’s decision was necessary to guard against near-future threats.
“Trump is doing a very good thing,” said Rick Fisher, a senior fellow at the International Assessment and Strategy Center. “He will suffer inevitable outrage and insult from the left, but in 25 years Americans will be very grateful that we have a Space Force.”
Already, U.S. adversaries have near-future ambitions to control space resources and protocols, and have military doctrines for the destruction of U.S. assets in space that could disable key functions of the U.S. military.
“China, today, has a Space Force,” Fisher said. “It has not yet been publicly acknowledged, but it resides under the Strategic Support Force, the latest branch of the People’s Liberation Army.”
The first commander of the PLA space warfare branch also commanded the Chinese space launch facility that in 2007 shot down one of the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) weather satellites, sending dangerous debris barreling through space. The incident demonstrated the PLA’s anti-satellite weapon program and was a key incident that led Congress to forbid NASA from cooperating with China on space technology.
With this and later incidents in mind, Fisher noted that “China’s first Space Force commander is now the most military-experienced Space Force commander in the world.”
Securing the Earth–Moon System
Trump noted during his June 18 announcement that his administration “is reclaiming America’s heritage as the world’s greatest space-faring nation.”
“The essence of the American character is to explore new horizons and to tame new frontiers,” Trump said. “But our destiny beyond the Earth is not just a matter of national identity, but also a matter of national security.
“When it comes to defending America, it’s not enough to merely have an American presence in space. We must have American dominance in space.”
Among the stated interests of the CCP is to mine resources on the moon, particularly helium-3, which could act as a fuel source for experimental fusion energy. Other nations and organizations have expressed similar interests, including proposals to capture and mine asteroids.
NASA has also expressed plans to mine water on the moon that then could be split into hydrogen and oxygen. The hydrogen could be a fuel source, allowing spaceships to use the moon as a refueling station and thus need less fuel weight when launching from Earth.
According to Fisher, one of the CCP’s near-term goals is to control the Earth–moon system, starting with a denial strategy and dominance of low Earth orbit. Controlling this system, it would be able to impose a toll on any ambitions for a space economy.
In history, the opening of a global economy on maritime trade created conflicts and thus a need for security. The United States has since the middle of the 20th century provided security for maritime trade channels and shipping chokepoints under the Pax Americana, at no cost to other nations.
The CCP’s attempts to control the Earth–moon system also raise concerns about the Party’s ambitions to create a “Pax Sinica” to replace the Pax Americana. Eventually, the CCP could charge a toll for using its channels and deny access when and where it deems fit.
The Future of NASA
Among Trump’s ambitions is for the United States to carry out a manned mission to Mars. With private companies creating civilian technologies for space, the prospects of a space economy are becoming very real.
“The human race is finally beginning to reach a point where we can realistically envision a space economy. Costs for access to space are rapidly declining thanks to innovative billionaires like Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, and Mr. Bigelow, the inventor of inflatable space structures,” Fisher said.
“With such a reduction in cost, it becomes economically feasible to go to the moon and go to Mars to find out whether a presence is economically viable.”
According to Chris Mattmann, associate chief technology officer at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the creation of a Space Corps could help NASA develop new forms of technologies.
“I think this Space Force could be an innovative thing for that,” he said. Good relations with the U.S. military are “seen as a very positive thing.”
Mattmann previously worked closely with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the research and development branch of the Pentagon, on its Memex program to mine and index the unseen parts of the internet known as the dark web. He said the new Space Force could help streamline this type of cooperation in the future.
As the United States begins to travel further into space, Mattmann said, there could be a very real need for a force that can provide security. “As much as those are necessary things for our civilian Earth defense … as we go out and explore more, we have to provide something that’s safe and secure there, too,” he said.
According to Fisher, the creation of the Space Force will help NASA to largely maintain its civilian character, rather than force the agency to get directly involved in military programs. “That is of some value in order to attract cooperation from other democracies, and to provide a necessary contrast with the military-managed space programs of China and Russia,” Fisher said.
As the programs move forward, Fisher said the Space Force will need to show leadership in cooperating with both NASA and emerging private space companies such as SpaceX.
“It is possible that in its early existence, the space force would put a greater emphasis on helping the private sector reach the moon and reach Mars than it would to develop specific or new military capabilities for space,” Fisher said. “The space force can become a powerful advocate for NASA and for the emerging private space sector.”
By creating a Space Force, he said, “President Trump is exercising the leadership that the Americans who voted for him have come to expect from him. Whether this is simply his gut instinct or his evaluation based on what he knows, it is a correct decision and will have far-reaching positive benefits for the United States of America.”