‘The Air Force, being [a] . . . well-established institution with [a] large, experienced and capable staff and trained technical experts, is better able to develop [the domain of space] than any other agency, which must necessarily include in its ranks relatively young people and which would at first be merely an experimental organization. . . . Since a space force requires the support and cooperation of supply services similar to those now existing in the Air Force, space branches should remain under the old establishment.”
This argument has a strong logic behind it: the idea that a new, independent space force would require a new bureaucracy, new supply lines, a new service academy, and new uniforms, and therefore would start out at an organizational disadvantage. But the quote comes from a book written by General Hap Arnold and Colonel Ira Eaker in 1941, with “Air Force” substituted for “Army and Navy” and “space force” for “Air Force.” As it happened, Arnold and Eaker would, in just a few months, lead the Army Air Forces during World War II, and in 1947 they would see an independent Air Force created.
The United States does not, at present, have a space force. Although President Trump has repeatedly called for the establishment of an independent space force, there has not been much support for one within the Pentagon or on Capitol Hill. Critics have said that the Air Force is properly supporting the nation’s defensive efforts in space, that the creation of a new service would take too much time and money, and that such a move would be a distraction from the current great-power competition with China and Russia. But the questions for today should be: Why now? What is the strategic threat that is driving the United States to create an independent space force now? What should its mission be?
On January 3, 2019, the Chinese unmanned probe Chang’e 4 landed within the Von Kármán crater at the south pole of the moon, just on the moon’s far side. Within a day, the probe’s rover, Yutu 2 (Jade Rabbit 2), rolled off the landing platform to begin its exploration of the surrounding environment. The moon’s poles are of scientific and commercial interest because of the ice preserved there in the permanent shadows of their deeper craters. This ice would be necessary to support a permanent manned base as well as commercial activities on the moon, including the in situ production of rocket propellant outside the Earth’s gravity well. The lunar poles are also strategically important in a military sense in that they provide a stable position from which to persistently “look down” on the Earth. They would therefore make an ideal location for future sensors and even weapons. All of this is important in understanding China’s decision to land in and explore the moon’s polar regions.
China’s space program, nominally administered by the Chinese National Space Administration, in fact shares significant infrastructure with the People’s Liberation Army Strategic Missile Force, created in December 2015, which controls China’s military rockets. Strong voices in China have begun advocating that the Middle Kingdom lay sovereign claims on raw resources in space. This is consistent with the Chinese government’s other efforts under President Xi Jinping to add to China’s territorial claims, expand its “core” interests, and redefine international norms to its benefit. China has announced that it intends to land men on the moon and establish a permanent base there by 2036.
President Trump and his administration have correctly recognized that the United States is engaged in a great-power competition with China and Russia, with China being the more active and dangerous competitor. With regard to space, both nations have invested in offensive capabilities to disrupt or destroy U.S. assets in orbit. In January 2007, China demonstrated an Earth-to-space anti-satellite (ASAT) weapon that successfully destroyed its target but also littered space with thousands of pieces of debris that continue to circle the globe, threatening to collide with other nations’ commercial and military satellites. It has conducted several follow-on ASAT demonstrations over the past decade. Russia and China (and the United States) have launched satellites that demonstrated an ability to change orbit and maneuver in close proximity to other satellites. Some analysts have speculated that this technology may be useful in systems meant to capture or destroy assets currently in orbit.
Additionally, Chinese legal scholars, “lawfare” being one of their favorite tools these days, have advanced an argument that the space above China in geosynchronous orbit is sovereign Chinese territory. This argument of “vertical sovereignty” is new and a potential threat to accepted norms. With regard to other aspects of space, the 1967 Outer Space Treaty precludes signatory nations from making territorial claims on celestial bodies, but it has been a characteristic of the Communist People’s Republic of China to reject treaties that were negotiated when China was weak. Such arguments are troubling when we consider that the resources of space potentially represent quintillions of dollars of wealth in our solar system’s asteroid belt alone. Historically, the flag has always followed trade, so the U.S. should plan ahead now.
A competition is evolving in space, one that is both military and commercial. When the Air Force was evolving during the first half of the 20th century, it transitioned from a section in the Army to a division, then a “service,” a corps, and ultimately a “force” before gaining its independence. This history presents a comparative roadmap for us today. Many commentators have suggested that the “space community” within the Air Force is analogous to the Army Air Service stage in the Air Force’s development and that the next step should be to advance to a “space corps” within the Air Force, much as the Marine Corps is lodged within the Department of the Navy. However, the more correct analogy would be a comparison to the Army Air Corps within the Army, which, prior to World War II, was constrained in its mission growth, forced to focus on providing support to that service, overextended financially to pay the bills of its parent service, and bad for one’s prospects of promotion.
A similar situation is visible today. Space missions are not the central focus of the Air Force’s leadership and have not been allowed to evolve and maximize the potential of space-based systems beyond providing support to Earth-based forces. Space systems are not priority No. 1 in the Air Force budget, and promotion rates of space-community personnel do not keep pace with those of their fighter-pilot counterparts. This is understandable because the Air Force is trying to recapitalize its fighter inventory, field a new heavy-tanker aircraft, build 100 new bombers, and renew the ground-based component of the nuclear triad, simultaneously. Space is not going to be a priority for an organization stressed by such requirements, and that situation is not in the United States’ interest.
Instead, the military space community needs to be free to fully develop its strategy, mission, and capabilities, as well as to recruit, train, and retain the very best people for the space-defense mission. It is for these reasons that the nation truly needs an independent space force. But what would it look like?
We should first ask what space capabilities should be retained by each of the other services. After all, although we have an independent Air Force, both the Navy and the Marine Corps have their own air elements. Even the Army, which gave up all of its aviation personnel and aircraft when the Air Force was created, almost immediately found that it had to reconstitute certain aviation capabilities in order to perform its mission.
To illustrate the choices, let’s consider two approaches to naval strategy. As naval power came of age, there emerged two schools of thought as to its use. One held that wars between nations could be won in major battles at sea. The other held that wars were decided on land and that naval power was best used in support of land operations — interdicting trade and supplies, enabling the projection of power ashore, and providing logistical support. So far, the United States’ approach to space has been almost entirely analogous to that of the latter school. Known systems such as orbiting signal-intelligence gatherers, sensors (imaging, radar, and infrared), communications satellites, and global positioning systems — operated by Air Force Space Command personnel — are all focused on supporting the joint force and the intelligence community.
Space control should instead be understood as the ability to maneuver to, from, and in space while denying that ability to your enemy. Space control also includes the ability to project power across space with systems that can create effects within the environment, in space and on Earth, that a nation wishes to shape. Space control should also create and preserve the ability of a nation to see and communicate within space and to exert some control over the electromagnetic environment (which in space, given the direct effects of the sun as well as the variable influence of the Earth’s magnetic field, can be challenging).
At present, these missions can be broken down into five categories: Earth-to-space; space-to-Earth; Earth-to-Earth through space; space-to-space; and Earth-based and space-based systems for space-object surveillance and identification. Each of these, in turn, can be divided into an offensive and a defensive aspect. It seems clear that missions focused on ensuring access to space should fall to a space force. Similarly, systems in orbit that conduct space-object surveillance and identification — or that, in the future, conduct co-orbital refueling and resupply, defense, and attack — would most properly be vested with the space force. Lastly, control of weapons or sensors that are in space but focused “downward” on Earth targets, including assets controlled by the National Reconnaissance Office, should fall within the space force’s mission portfolio.
What seems less clear is the proper allocation of offensive and defensive missions reaching from Earth towards space. For instance, if an individual Army, Navy, or Air Force unit is targeted by a weapon from space or is traveling through space, it must be able to defend itself. Think of this as tactical, terrestrially based space defense, a capacity of the current military services. Thus, Aegis missile defense and THAAD systems would remain under Navy and Army control. However, the strategic terrestrial space-defense mission, including large systems established to defend the nation against attacks by ballistic missiles that launch from Earth to hit Earth targets but pass through space, ought to be assigned to the space force so as to allow seamless coordination between Earth-based and space-based sensors and defensive weapons. The bottom line is that the space force must move beyond the current focus on supplying support to the Earth-bound joint force and begin actively asserting control of the space environment and protecting American interests there.
The United States is well positioned to venture into space. Its commercial space industry is the most innovative in the world and is poised to exploit the effectively unlimited resources spread throughout our solar system, beginning with the moon and nearby asteroids, and eventually reaching into the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. However, the nation’s approach to military space power has become calcified and is bound to a constrictive status quo. The Air Force, the newest of the nation’s military services, has been a good place to gestate the nation’s space capabilities, but just as the Army helped to create military aviation in the United States only to restrain its growth later as it began to compete with Army missions and budgets, the time has come to sever the ties between the space community and the Air Force in order to let the former grow into the emerging space-control mission.
The space force should not be trapped by straw-man arguments. Constraints on the Army Air Corps by the Army didn’t make sense to Hap Arnold and Ira Eaker in 1941, and restrictions on the space community by the Air Force don’t make sense today. China and Russia are establishing military capabilities in space. An independent space force, as called for by the president, will allow the United States to catch up and defend its interests, both in space and on the Earth.