Understanding the United States Space Force

Mayank Singh
February 01, 2020

 

Image Courtesy: Washington Post

On December 20, 2019, with President Donald Trump’s signature on the 2020 National Defence Authorization Act, the United States of America set up the United States Space Corps as the sixth military branch of its armed forces and the first one since the creation of US Air Force in 1947. The United States Space Corps will be within the Department of the Airforce, just like the Marine Corps is under the US Navy, and like Marines, it also has its representation on the Joint Chiefs of Staff and is headquartered at the Pentagon. The law also re-designates the Air Force Space Command (AFSC) as the US Space Force, making it the umbrella organization which will have all the space-related personals and assets except the National Reconnaissance Office or the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency.

Aim

US Space Force will provide “freedom of operation for the United States in, from, and to space; and prompt and sustained space operations” and “protect the interest of United States in space; deter aggression in, from, and to space; and conduct space operations.”

History

Realizing the importance of space in national defense, the United States established the Air Force Space Command (AFSPC) in 1982 with space operations as its primary mission. Following the creation of AFSPC and to coordinate the use of outer space by US Armed forces, it created the United States Space Command (USSPACECOM) in 1985. During its initial years, AFSPC focused on satellite control, space surveillance, missile warning, and command and control for the national leadership. The USSPACECOM and AFSPC proved their mantle during the Operation Desert Storm in 1991, by helping Joint Warfighter by providing strategic warnings, assured communications, precision positioning, navigation, and timing. In the post 9/11 phase too, the AFSPC actively contributed to the US operations in Afghanistan. However, due to the shift in the US military priorities from space to Homeland security and counterterrorism, during the process of realignment of military sources, the USSPACECOM was merged with US Strategic Command in 2002. 

In 2019, the White House reactivated the USSPACECOM in response to adversaries challenging its dominance in space, and also due to its realization that as long as space remained the responsibility of US Strategic Command, whose primary focus is nuclear deterrence, space would not get the full attention and visibility it deserves. The USSPACECOM will now treat “outer space as a theater of war” and act as a unifying command to conduct all space operations of the US military.

Rationale behind creating a new military branch Space Force

According to the US legislative guidelines and aerospace experts, a case should be made for US Space Force under the centrality of space systems to the US conventional power projection and also due to the relative vulnerability of these systems from the emerging threats from China and Russia. Hitherto, the US has historically maintained technological advances in space systems over these potential adversaries. However, in the last twenty years, these adversaries have not only actively developed their space capabilities but concentrated their efforts on countering US space advantages, by developing capabilities in the domain of cyber-warfare, radio frequency jamming, and lasers. With the development of anti-satellite and hypersonic missiles, the adversaries have potentially exposed American intelligence capabilities, Global Positioning System (GPS), and civilian communications satellites to multidimensional threats and can make the US and its military deaf, dumb, and blind within seconds. 

Today space is a critical factor in the ability of the US military to conduct operations throughout the globe. In everything the US military does today, from joint warfighters to navigation and timing, assured communication, strategic warning, reconnaissance, and precision positioning, it relies heavily on its space assets. The space satellites helped the US Navy to guide its aircraft carriers in the Persian Gulf and its aircraft over Syria. Unmanned Air Vehicle (UAV) systems are the most dependent on satellites; without satellites, they do not function, as their control signals and data are routed over satellites. Intelligence Officers of the Central Intelligence Agency also depend upon spy satellites to gather information on adversaries. The US ground troops on patrol, US air force planes, and precision-guided munitions make use of the Global Positioning System (GPS) and Military Satellite Communications Systems (MILSATCOM) to track their movements. Intelligence satellites also require space-based assets for the Battle Damage Assessments (BDA) post operations in order to determine whether operations objectives have been met.

It needs to be mentioned that another point of support for the creation of USSF comes from the critics of the US Air Force. The requirement of a new military branch is essential because space scientists believe that the US Air Force does not pay ample attention to ‘outer space,’ and being the ‘Air Force,’ it will never make space its top priority. Currently, the existing US space forces are fragmented across the US military, and the integration of these fragmented forces into one coherent organization, under one chain of command, definitely had some merit.

Many from academia, especially from the field of space law, also favor the move. According to the academicians, the primary area of concern is how China and Russia conduct themselves in an uncharted environment like space, especially when they have capabilities to disrupt and deny the use of space in conflict or crisis. They have different views about what international law means, what its value is, and when one has to follow it. 

Conclusion

The move to create USSF by the US could end up militarizing space, as it could act as the first step in an already accelerated competition between the US, China, and Russia and a direct incentive to build a space force on similar lines, ultimately increasing the likelihood of conflict in space. As such, the US has to reassure its allies and adversaries that USSF is not about offensive military capabilities or destroying other states’ assets in space, but it is all about defending US assets in and from space. A white paper on USSF is the most awaited first step in this regard.

What is in the bag for India?

Being a rising space power and having considerable national assets in space, India should act proactively and must start developing a long term national space strategy. India should form a triple-helix model partnership between the government, academia, and private industry to develop research-based dedicated space capabilities. As space-related technologies are tremendously complex and can take longer to develop, it would be unwise to bank on other countries for the latest technologies and know-how towards building credible space capabilities.

*** The author is currently pursuing Ph.D. at the Center for Canadian, US, and Latin American Studies, School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University. He completed his M.Phil and M.A. in Politics (with Specialisation in International Relations) form Jawaharlal Nehru University. He is B.E. in Information Technology form Institute of Technology and Management, Gurgaon and worked with Infosys and Tata Consulting Services in Structures Products, Insurance and Pharmaceutical domain ***

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