Space force on the horizon … maybe
7 Aug 2018|

Moves to develop a US space force, which is being strongly pushed by President Donald Trump, are quietly gathering pace, even though funding for the force has been pushed back a year.

A draft of a report, to be presented to Congress sometime in August, apparently proposes a four-step process for creating a sixth independent military force alongside the US Navy, Air Force, Army, Marine Corps and Coast Guard.

In step one, the Pentagon would create a new combatant command, to be known as US Space Command, which it can do without congressional authorisation. Second, the Department of Defense would create a joint space operations force that would also include civilian personnel and be tasked with developing a cadre of people with space expertise to support US European Command and US Indo-Pacific Command by next summer.

Next, the Pentagon would transform how it develops, launches and operates satellites to emphasise speed and experimentation. This would be a task for a new space development agency. Private sector space companies would be given a bigger role and become more closely integrated with government agencies. There would be a transition process from current projects, with the space development agency taking on a greater role over time.

Step four would be establishing the space force itself to knit these elements together—which would require congressional support and full funding. That’s something that will be considered for the 2020 defence budget, and it’s highly likely that Trump will continue to push hard for Congress to take that final step. He’s invested substantial political capital into the idea, and it would be a humiliation for him, going into the 2020 presidential election, to have the space force shot out of the sky by Congress.

The first three steps are vital and will lead to a debate over the space force concept in Congress and the Pentagon in 2019–20. It’s important to get this issue away from counterproductive and often mindless partisan criticism. These initial steps are a good use of time and resources because they suggest a better approach to managing a space domain that is contested, congested and competitive.

Having a coherent, truly joint space command that is supported by expertise from all elements of the US military and defence community and having a faster and more efficient approach to acquiring space capability are good things. It’s that final step to a space force that will generate the hottest debate.

The US Air Force has legitimate concerns that a space force might lead to unnecessary duplication of effort, with attendant cost implications for a branch which is already heavily engaged in the space mission. Former air force secretary Deborah Lee James criticised the space force as a classic shiny object that ‘will consume a lot of time, a lot of effort and absolutely will be a distraction’. James goes on to argue that a space force will slow down the momentum of investments in space capability. ‘Suddenly the focus will shift on who is going to report to whom, and how do we get these directives written and everything that goes along with creating a brand new bureaucracy.’

The space force is coming together right at a time when Russia and China are moving aggressively towards developing and fielding counter-space capability that threatens US access to the space domain. Any disruption to the US’s ability to respond to that growing threat could be disastrous if it means the US isn’t prepared to deter and, if necessary, counter a ‘Pearl Harbor in space’. There’s a risk that partisan squabbling—particularly if the Republicans lose control of the House of Representatives or Senate after this year’s congressional midterms—could undermine any serious debate about whether a space force is the answer or not, and slow progress on a coherent US response to counter-space threats.

The key question remains, though, what does a space force actually do? Earlier I pointed to one possible future scenario of US competition with peer adversaries on the highest ground of cislunar space (the region between the Earth and the moon) in the late 2020s and beyond. That’s like something straight out of The Expanse. With both China and the US signalling moves back to the moon in the 2020–30 period, and the potential resource wealth in that region, competition over presence and access to resources could mean a need to protect astropolitical interests. Space isn’t an uncontested commons that sits above terrestrial geopolitical rivalries—not even out at lunar orbit.

Closer to home, and more proximate to the here and now, a US space force would be responsible for defending US and allied interests in the region against growing counter-space threats. It would also be required to conduct operations such as launching and operating satellites and spacecraft for defence and national security missions. Certainly the US Air Force already does this task, so the key debate in coming months must be whether an independent ‘US Space Force’ would do it better.

For US allies such as Australia, it’s important to begin discussing how a space force would affect cooperation between the US and its partners. The initial steps discussed above take the idea of a space force from the butt of jokes by late-night talk show hosts to something a bit more serious. As Australia begins to debate a more ambitious approach to space, including for defence purposes, a discussion on how we might work with our allies in the future is something that should not be dismissed. A US space force might be part of that future.

Update: The final report was submitted to Congress on 9 August 2018.