The Ripon Forum

Volume 53, No. 3

June 2019

The Militarization of Space & the Path Forward for the U.S.

By on June 20, 2019


As we approach the 50th Anniversary of the Moon landing — a time when operations in space promised to be in “peace for all mankind” — the reality of the future is changing. Today, actions on the part of China and Russia point to the militarization of space and the reality that warfare will extend into space.

Threats are rapidly growing to U.S. space-based capabilities that are critical for intelligence, banking, communications, transportation, accurate weapons employment, and a host of other areas to name but a few. In 2007, a Chinese anti-satellite (ASAT) test destroyed its target orbiting the earth. Additional Chinese and Russian ASAT tests since then suggest an ability to reach geosynchronous orbit, where most of the U.S. intelligence satellites are located. Russia and China are also developing co-orbital systems that can disrupt or destroy our satellites. Because these systems are “dual-use,” meaning that they may be used either for peaceful purposes or for counterspace operations, hostile intentions are difficult to detect.

The U.S. must respond quickly and strategically to this new reality. Space-based systems are now fundamental to the conduct of war, and the U.S. military cannot fight effectively without them. At the same time, because U.S. policy had presumed space would remain a peaceful sanctuary, the U.S. is woefully behind in space-based warfighting capabilities.

Space-based systems are now fundamental to the conduct of war, and the U.S. military cannot fight effectively without them.

Two objectives are imperative to adapt and mature our space policy to keep the American people secure. First, the national security space community must transition from treating space as a sanctuary to regarding space as a warfighting domain. And second, the current cadre of U.S. space operators must substantially add new depth of capabilities beyond simply providing support for warfighters by developing the ability to fight as warfighters themselves.

The U.S. did not seek to weaponize space, but the actions of China and Russia demand a response. As Air Force Chief of Staff David Goldfein said on Feb. 3, 2017, “Our vision is to first normalize space operations as a joint warfighting domain; no different than any other warfighting domain.”

The Trump Administration has proposed structural changes to the Department of Defense (DOD) to address this situation. The most significant are the establishment of a new unified combatant command, the U.S. Space Command, to focus on warfighting in space, and a request to Congress to create a U.S. Space Force as the sixth armed service.

A contemplative look at these proposals reveals that one is appropriate while the other is still premature. The best way to address threats to U.S. operations in space is to stand up the combatant command for space operations as rapidly as possible. Once established, it will reinvigorate an urgency for dealing with the growing military threats to our space-based capabilities.

Before establishing a new armed service for space, however, we must first ensure the conditions are in place to ensure its success. The idea of a separate space armed service will make sense someday, but only once it actually benefits the U.S. security enterprise.

By definition, standing up a new “armed” service requires it to have “arms” and the ability to achieve military effects commensurate with those of the other armed services. Currently, the U.S. has no arms in space nor military capabilities proportionate with the other armed services. It will be years before we do.

Additionally, establishing a separate space armed force will be premature until the following key essentials are also accomplished. First, Congress must address constraints to fully-weaponized space capability. The DOD must also mature space warfare theory and concepts of operation. In addition, DOD must possess a requisite number of trained personnel to fight in space. Finally, sufficient resources must be committed to build and sustain expanded U.S. space operations across the entire warfighting spectrum.

At the same time, because U.S. policy had presumed space would remain a peaceful sanctuary, the U.S. is woefully behind in space-based warfighting capabilities.

The U.S. should also gain more focused control of its disparate space assets. As the Vice President recently stated, “Our national security space program is spread across more than 60 departments and agencies, resulting in a glaring lack of leadership and accountability that undermines our combatant commanders and puts our warfighters at risk.”

The Administration’s proposed new armed service for space does nothing to address this problem. As proposed, it will consist simply of a segment of the current Air Force Space Command without drawing in any resources from the 60-plus other government organizations with a stake in space and security. In fact, the Administration’s proposed changes will actually create several additional new space organizations, further complicating an already bloated space bureaucracy.

The U.S. Air Force has led the U.S. armed forces in establishing America’s space capability, making it the world’s unrivaled leader. Today, the Air Force possesses a highly integrated set of air and space capabilities organized to seamlessly contribute to overall U.S. military might. Splitting this integration into two services would reduce the Nation’s military power. That said, greater emphasis on space is required.

The Air Force must mature the cadre in the U.S. Air Force Space Command to enable them not only to defend our space-based enablers from attack, but also to be prepared to fight enemy threats in space. This requires the Air Force to:

1) Cross-train and develop its space personnel for warfighting;

2) Exercise warfighting capabilities in and from space, and;

3) Develop the personnel and facilities to accomplish all of the above.

To actualize these changes, today’s U.S. Air Force Space Command should be re-designated as the U.S. Air Force Space Force as a major command within the Air Force hierarchy, with the mission of not only providing forces for the new U.S. Space Command, but of creating the conditions to eventually evolve into a separate armed force — once all the key essentials are in hand.

We are at the beginning of a significant evolution regarding military operations in space. Managed prudently, a fundamental re-vectoring of America’s national security space enterprise as outlined above will result in minimal bureaucratic impacts and improved economies of scale. They can be accomplished without risking harm to our established U.S. space architecture.

Yet they would be significant enough to set in motion the fundamental changes necessary, not only to defend our space assets, but also to ensure success if ever necessary to fight in, through, or from space.

Three-star General Dave Deptula is the Dean of the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies in Arlington, Virginia. A world-recognized leader in conceptualizing, planning, and executing national security operations from humanitarian relief to major combat operations, he has also orchestrated space operations during combat.

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