Today, Vice President Mike Pence gave a speech at the Pentagon in which he filled in some details on the administration’s plans to add a distinct space force to the Department of Defense. The speech coincided with the completion of a Pentagon report that provides a greater sense of how the space force would be structured and fit in with the existing Defense bureaucracy. But there’s still a lot unspecified regarding whether non-defense space activities, such as those pursued by the NSA, will be affected by the changes.
Now is the time
A significant portion of Pence’s speech was devoted to arguing that this is the right time for a space force. Some of the arguments date back to the Cold War, like the development of anti-satellite weaponry, a concern enhanced by China’s testing of such a weapon about a decade ago. Others are more recent, like the development of things such as GPS-jamming hardware. One of the arguments stretched logic a little, as Pence cited the threat of hypersonic missiles, which pose a risk because they don’t enter space and therefore can’t be targeted for antimissile interception there.
While these events may not represent a coherent plan by an adversary to militarize space, Pence argued that they represent a situation where US adversaries like China and Russia have already made space what he termed a warfighting domain. “What was once peaceful and uncontested is now crowded and adversarial,” Pence said, referring to space. “Today, other nations are seeking to disrupt our space-based systems and challenge our supremacy as never before.” He quoted Trump in saying that this was unacceptable and that “We must have American dominance in space.”
Pence has argued that this change meant that the appropriate response is a new branch of the military, but his view of history here was a bit odd. The two examples he cited to argue for the benefits of a space force were the US Air Force’s growth during World War II and the formation of the Special Operations Command in the 1980s. But the Air Force’s growth took place while it was still the Army Air Corps; its current status was only granted afterward. The Special Operations Command, by contrast, hasn’t achieved the same status as that intended for space force.
Be that as it may, the administration is starting to fill out some details about what might go into a space force. These would include a secretary of the Space Force, which will eventually reach the same status as the secretary of the Army or Navy and have a seat on the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The secretary will oversee a unified combat command that will coordinate activities and establish combat doctrines for space. That will be joined by a Space Development Agency that, by becoming part of the defense bureaucracy, is intended to be an antidote to bureaucracy and enable new thinking.
The first chance to implement any of this will be in the 2020 budget. Starting then, the administration hopes to spend $8 billion over the ensuing five years.
In terms of practical considerations, Pence mentioned a couple of activities that will be folded into the space force. These include our current anti-ballistic missile defense systems. Pence also mentioned reconnaissance satellites. While the military operates a number of these, others are handled by civilian agencies like the NSA, as it was found to be advantageous to have multiple sources of intelligence. It’s not clear whether that independent operation will continue and, if so, how these activities will be coordinated with those of the space force.
While the details are still sparse, all indications are that the majority of the personnel and activities that could end up in the space force will come from the Air Force.
Whatever happens with the creation of the space force, US doctrine will remain constrained by the Outer Space Treaty, which outlaws the positioning of weapons of mass destruction in space or any weaponry on the Moon. While this does allow a variety of conventional weapons in space, practical considerations should limit things like anti-satellite weapons, which have the potential to create debris fields that limit access to space by all nations.
When the report becomes available, we’ll update this article to reflect it.
More Info: arstechnica.com