During a virtual conference earlier this month on space innovation and technology, Lt. Gen. John Shaw tried to dispel fears that the U.S. Space Force is a menace to peaceful research and exploration.

At the event hosted by the University of Washington’s Space Policy and Research Center, Shaw, the three-star deputy commander of U.S. Space Command, was asked to address concerns from the scientific community that the newest branch of the military is making the space environment more dangerous.

Shaw, who received a master’s degree in aeronautics and astronautics from the University of Washington, said he was sympathetic to those concerns but insisted the Space Force should be viewed as a friend, not an enemy, of space researchers.

“The way to think about this is that the Space Force isn’t all about war fighting in space. It’s about security,” Shaw said.

What the Space Force does is no different from what military maritime forces do to keep waters safe for research and commerce, Shaw explained.

“I don’t think those that are exploring the oceans would think that the Navy or the Coast Guard are working against them,” he said. “It’s all part of providing security in a domain where human activity is increasing. I think it’s a natural evolution of that activity.”

The role of the Space Force as a protector of civilian space assets was endorsed by NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine in September when the agency signed a memorandum of understanding with the U.S. Space Force.

NASA would turn to the Space Force, for example, if its assets in orbit came under attack. “The space domain is becoming more challenging and those challenges affect NASA just like they affect the commercial operators,” Bridenstine said during an online forum hosted by the Air Force Association’s Mitchell Institute.

Bridenstine noted that countries are acquiring lasers and other technologies to jam satellites, as well as cyber weapons to hack into space systems. “These are the kinds of things that affect pretty much everybody in the space domain,” he said.

Shaw said the Space Force wants to work with NASA, military allies, commercial industry and research community to deter aggression.

But this message is a hard sell to many who worry about space becoming a violent battlefield and what that might mean for the future of research and exploration.

Laura Grego, a senior scientist in the global security program at the Union of Concerned Scientists, has argued that having a military service focused on space inevitably creates bureaucratic incentives to hype the space weapons threat and build new weapons.

Grego and other space security experts call out what they believe is aggressive rhetoric from military space leaders that could increase the risk of armed conflict given that there are no agreed-upon international norms of behavior in space.

The discussion with Shaw at the University of Washington event is a sign that almost a year since the Space Force was signed into law, leaders are still trying to figure out how to communicate with outside audiences that don’t understand what the service was created for.

Shaw and other officials have pointed out that the growing dependence of human activities on satellites in space means these assets have to be protected. They also note that Russia and China continue to invest in more advanced anti-satellite weapons so the United States cannot just sit back and watch.

“And it doesn’t take a lot to put that logic together to see that now those capabilities are under threat,” Shaw said.

“We’re now in a situation where we need to look at not only continuing to deliver space capabilities for society and for joint warfighters around the globe,” he added. “ Now we actually have to go and protect and defend them ourselves.”

Sandra Erwin

Sandra Erwin covers military space for SpaceNews. She is a veteran national security journalist and former editor of National Defense magazine.

“On National Security” appears in every issue of SpaceNews magazine. This column ran in the Nov. 16, 2020 issue.

Sandra Erwin writes about military space programs, policy, technology and the industry that supports this sector. She has covered the military, the Pentagon, Congress and the defense industry for nearly two decades as editor of NDIA’s National Defense...