“On National Security” appears in every issue of SpaceNews magazine. This column ran in the June 25, 2018 issue.
It was the story that launched a thousand memes. President Trump last week shocked the military establishment and ordered the Pentagon to form a Space Force as a separate branch of the service.
Within seconds the news blew up the internet. Social media had a good time mocking Trump for pursuing intergalactic dominance, and posting GIFs of helmets and shiny space suits that troops will wear while shooting down asteroids and chasing aliens to the final frontier.
Sarcasm and jokes aside, it is remarkable that all this hoopla is over a very small piece of the U.S. military. The space component in fact only makes up 2 percent of the U.S. Air Force. And until Trump put it under a massive spotlight, the Space Force (or Space Corps) only existed as an academic and policy debate in Washington blue-ribbon commissions and occasional congressional hearings.
The social media reaction to Trump’s decree suggests that most people know very little about the military space mission, or even were aware that one exits.
Regardless of what Trump says, only Congress has the power to organize, equip and fund a Space Force. Its biggest proponent on Capitol Hill, Rep. Mike Rogers, said it “drives him nuts” that most Americans know nothing about the threats the nation faces in space. Rogers, a Republican from Alabama, chairs the House Armed Services strategic forces subcommittee that last year pushed through language to create a Space Corps but ultimately was defeated in the absence of Senate support.
“People that were not paying attention think the president’s Space Force idea came out of nowhere,” Rogers fumed. Not true. “The Congress spent the last three years studying this.” The president picking up the torch and instructing the Pentagon to make the Space Force happen is something that Rogers only could have fantasized about until recently.
Much of what the military does in space is classified, which frustrates Rogers and others who regularly are briefed by military and intelligence officials about “the threat” but can’t share that information with the public. Based on unclassified reports from Washington think tanks and tidbits the Pentagon included in its National Defense Strategy, the problem is that countries like China and Russia have developed technologies that could be used to take down or disrupt the signals of U.S. satellites.
There is broad consensus that the U.S. and global economy could suffer a devastating blow if GPS satellites were attacked. Or that the military’s worldwide networks would be at risk if communications satellites were blinded by lasers or microwaves. The disproportionate impact that taking down a few satellites could cause gives countries an incentive to pursue anti-satellite weapons, and the military worries that it is not prepared or equipped to fight back. Another concern is that the Air Force — whose preoccupying mission is airpower — has been slow to design more “defendable” satellites to replace the more vulnerable ones.
“If the public and the media knew a fraction of what the threat is, they would be howling for this [the Space Force] to be done,” Rogers said. He plans to ask the White House to declassify “a lot of information” about what China and Russia are doing.
The Space Force essentially would be in charge of developing, operating, tracking and defending the military’s space systems, which in the case of GPS, also are essential to the civilian economy and global technology ecosystem. An important mission indeed, no matter what color helmets or jackets they end up wearing.
Sandra Erwin covers military space for SpaceNews. She is a veteran national security journalist and former editor of National Defense magazine.