By Alan W. Dowd
As the U.S. Space Force (USSF) prepares to celebrate its first birthday, USSF commander Gen. John Raymond is set to receive a very unique present: a seat on the Joint Chiefs of Staff. This is just one of many milestones and developments that underscore the rapid maturation of America’s newest military branch.
When President Donald Trump announced plans in 2018 to stand up a military branch dedicated to space, several media outlets dismissed the idea as a “space farce.” Some in the press called it “ridiculous.” Netflix even created a comedy series mocking the very notion of a branch focused on defending U.S. interests in space.
What Hollywood and most media types didn’t know was that Trump’s plans were very much in line with almost 60 years of policymaking.
President John Kennedy in 1962 called for America to occupy “a position of preeminence” in space and warned of “hostile misuse of space” by adversaries. President Ronald Reagan in 1982 declared that the U.S. would “oppose…prohibitions on the military or intelligence use of space.” In the mid-1990s, President Bill Clinton ordered the Pentagon to develop “space-control capabilities” and “ensure freedom of action in space.”
In 2001, a congressionally-appointed commission led by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld (who headed the Pentagon under President Gerald Ford and President George W. Bush) envisioned the establishment of “a Space Corps within the Air Force” to help “avoid a space Pearl Harbor.”
In 2016, John Hamre, deputy secretary of defense under Clinton, proposed a “space service” within the Air Force. In 2017, Rep. Jim Cooper and Rep. Mike Rogers drafted bipartisan legislation calling for “creation, under the secretary of the Air Force, of a new Space Corps, as a separate military service.” And in 2019, a group of defense officials led by Defense Secretary William Perry (who headed the Pentagon under Clinton) urged “establishment of a new military service for space” to “deter conflict from beginning in or extending into space, and, if deterrence fails, to defeat hostile actions and protect our economic and national-security interests.”
That same year, NATO recognized space as an operational domain of warfare; France carved out a space command within the French air force; and Britain announced creation of a space command.
In short, the U.S. Space Force—born in December 2019—is anything but a farce. To the contrary, it’s an idea whose time has come.
Most Americans are unaware of how busy the USSF has been in its first year.
Last December, the USSF began tracking satellites, supporting military launches and operating the U.S. constellation of GPS satellites, on which most Americans depend for the everyday stuff of modern life.
In January, less than a month after the USSF’s birth, Iran launched missiles at U.S. bases in Iraq. “Members of the U.S. Space Force detected those missiles at launch and provided early warning to our forces,” as Gen. David Thompson reported.
In March, the USSF activated and began manning the new “Counter Communications System”—a ground-based weapons system capable of jamming enemy satellite signals during hostilities.
In May, Raymond signed an order shifting Operation Olympic Defender from U.S. Strategic Command to U.S. Space Command. Led by the U.S. and Britain, Olympic Defender is an international partnership “intended to optimize space operations…enhance resilience…synchronize U.S. efforts with some of its closest allies…strengthen allies’ abilities to deter hostile acts in space, strengthen deterrence against hostile actors, and reduce the spread of debris orbiting the earth,” according to the Pentagon. Japan, Spain, France, Italy, Australia, Canada and New Zealand are expected to participate in Olympic Defender.
In August, the USSF published a “spacepower doctrine” that details “why spacepower is vital for our nation, how military spacepower is employed, who military space forces are and what military space forces value.” The precedent-setting document parallels the Pentagon’s landpower, seapower and airpower doctrines.
While the media and Hollywood are predictably oblivious, the reason the USSF has been so busy is obvious to anyone who follows national security: “The scope, scale and complexity of the threat to our space capabilities is real, and it’s concerning,” according to Raymond.
That threat emanates from two sources: China and Russia.
A U.S. government report notes that Beijing “views space as a critical U.S. military and economic vulnerability.” With an eye on exploiting that vulnerability, China has created a Strategic Support Force responsible for operations “involving satellite-on-satellite attacks,” according to RAND. Recent Pentagon reports add that China has “the most rapidly maturing space program in the world”; is developing doctrines geared toward “destroying, damaging and interfering with the enemy’s…satellites”; and is acquiring technologies to accelerate “counter-space capabilities,” including lasers, satellite jammers and anti-satellite (ASAT) weaponry.
China has conducted at least three ASAT tests in recent years. A 2007 ASAT test conducted by China “was a clarifying event,” according to Gen. Chance Saltzman, USSF deputy chief. “I can almost chart from there the establishment of the Space Force…suddenly space was contested.”
Russia, which stood up an Aero-Space Forces command in 2015, is conducting ASAT tests far more frequently than China. Moscow’s April 2020 ASAT test is believed to be its ninth test of a “direct ascent” ASAT in recent years. (Direct-ascent ASATs are missiles launched from the ground or from airplanes.) More recently, in July 2020, Russia tested a satellite-borne kill vehicle. This follows a similar test in 2017, when Russia deployed a satellite that “launched a high-speed projectile into space,” as Raymond recently revealed.
In addition, the Russian military has deployed satellites capable of “rendezvous and proximity operations”—military parlance for maneuvering around other satellites to monitor, disrupt and/or disable them. In February 2020, Raymond reported that two Russian satellites were shadowing a U.S. Keyhole satellite in what he called “unusual and disturbing” behavior.
The reason China’s and Russia’s actions are so concerning is the reason the USSF was created: “Space underpins every bit of our national power,” Raymond explains. Indeed, the American people depend on space for communications, commerce, air and ground transport, navigation at sea, emergency services, and national security.
A 2019 Space Foundation report reveals a global space economy of $414.75 billion—up from $261.6 billion a decade earlier. And of the 2,218 operational satellites in orbit, 1,007 are owned and operated by U.S. firms, government agencies or military units. Put another way: just as freedom of the seas was essential to America’s economic and national security in centuries past, so is freedom of space essential to America’s economic and national security this century. As with freedom of the seas, ensuring freedom of space depends on responsible powers deterring bad actors, dissuading reckless behavior and enforcing “rules of the road.”
That brings us to the national-security aspects of space. Missile-defense ships prowling the Pacific, soldiers guarding the 38th Parallel, UCAVs circling over Africa’s lawless regions, fighter-bombers loitering above Middle East hotspots, air squadrons and armored battalions protecting the Baltics, carrier strike groups defending freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, Marine Expeditionary Units watching Iran in the Persian Gulf, submarines serving as a silent deterrent, sensors monitoring Russian, Chinese and North Korean nukes, communications networks linking commanders, troops, weapons systems and allies—all of these rely on space-based assets. Put another way: every branch is dependent on space.
No branch is more closely associated with terra firma than the Army. Yet as the Lexington Institute’s Loren Thompson points out, a typical Army armored brigade “contains over 2,000 pieces of equipment that rely on space assets to function.”
The same applies to the Air Force and Navy. “Air superiority depends on space superiority,” says Air Force Maj. Gen. Alex Grynkewich. “The loss of space would mean naval battles would in many ways be like the game of Battleship, where the two sides would struggle to even find each other,” adds the New America Foundation’s Peter Singer.
However, the main mission of the USSF is not to wage war, but to maintain peace.
“Although space is a warfighting domain,” Raymond observes, “our goal is to actually deter a conflict from extending into space. The best way I know how to do that is to be prepared to fight and win if deterrence were to fail.”
Raymond is obviously a student of history. It pays to recall that a few years back, a well-known American general offered a similar assessment: “There is nothing so likely to produce peace as to be well prepared to meet an enemy.”
Raymond understands that Gen. George Washington’s counsel applies whether the enemy lurks on land, at sea, in the sky—or in space.