On National Security | Space Force is a huge meme but it’s no joke

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“On National Security” appears in every issue of SpaceNews magazine. This column ran in the Aug. 13, 2018 issue.

Vice President Mike Pence last week thrust the Space Force into the spotlight in a big way. Speaking at the Pentagon to an audience packed with military officials, he laid out the plan for how the Defense Department will begin the process of creating a sixth branch of the military dedicated to space.

The Trump administration is on a mission to make this happen within a few years. The Space Force is being cast as a necessary measure to fight back Russia and China who are threatening to take down or jam U.S. satellites. It also has become a “legacy” issue as President Trump wants to be forever remembered as the commander in chief who led the creation of the Space Force. Pence rolled out the plan only seven weeks after Trump directed the Pentagon to begin the process.

Pence said the president has made it a priority to “restore America’s proud history of leadership in space” because space is “essential to the nation’s security and prosperity.”

The Space Force would help the U.S. prepare for “the next battlefield.” He said Russia and China have transformed space into a warfighting domain and that the U.S. will not “shrink from this challenge.”

Most people outside the national security community don’t think of space as a warfighting domain. But the military has regarded it as such for at least 20 years.

Air Force Gen. Paul Selva, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, recalled that a colonel from the Chinese War College wrote a paper in 1998 that looked how the United States military had become so dominant. It concluded that the only way to fight U.S. forces would be in “asymmetric” ways, such as denying American forces the ability to deploy advanced weapons and, you guessed it, denying access to the navigation, surveillance and communications satellites that enable all that military might.

China has focused on developing technologies to counter U.S. advantages, including space weapons, both kinetic and electronic. “That is the only way to compete and win against American capability,” Selva said last week.

The U.S. military is highly dependent on space for weather, command and control, connectivity, precision navigation and target recognition. If those capabilities were not available it would put American forces at a disadvantage. Selva noted that Russia and China may not be military adversaries today, but their behavior could “become adversarial overnight.” And if space becomes an asymmetric approach, “We have to be prepared.”

That’s the basic rationale for increasing military capabilities to defend assets in space, regardless of how one feels about Trump’s space force initiative, which, by the way, has been highly politicized.

The threats are real, however, according to senior officials who have access to classified intelligence. The battle for control of space is in fact an existential one for Western values, argued Undersecretary of Defense for Research and Engineering Michael Griffin.

“If we don’t make sure that we control space, others will,” he said during a keynote speech last week at the Space & Missile Defense Symposium.

He said space is a “human domain” in the sense that it’s widely used for peaceful functions, for economic development and national security purposes. “It will be a human domain and will be under the control of some piece of human society,” Griffin continued. If a country like China ended up dominating space over the United States, there is a good chance that Western culture would be at risk, he said. “Western values are fragile. Most societies in most of the world at most times have not shared those values. If we do not take control, positive control of a crucial human domain, if we do not make sure we have control of the space domain, other societies will,” he said. “I submit that the result will not be one which we will like.”


Sandra Erwin

 

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