The debate about establishing a new branch of the United States military that specializes in space and orbital defense has been going on since long before President Trump threw his support behind a “Space Force.” In fact, a “Space Corps” was even included in Congress’ defense budget last year, before being lost in the effort to combine the Congressional proposal with the budget passed by the Senate.
Despite some of the responses Trump’s remarks have garnered among social media users and pundits alike, there is little debate about the need for orbital defense under the umbrella of the U.S. Armed Forces — the real question experts have been mulling over is how to do so in the most fiscally effective way possible. Those who support the establishment of a new branch argue that the Air Force has consistently demonstrated an unwillingness to devote adequate resources to the defense America’s increasingly at-risk orbital assets — with some, like Rep. Mike Rogers arguing that he can’t fault the branch for failing to come through with its promises when we also expect them to maintain continuing kinetic operations all around the world. A space branch, they argue, would be able to argue on its own behalf to fund integral efforts to our nation’s defense.
Those who oppose the establishment of a space branch (aside from those simply stretching their “Everything Trump does is bad” muscles) have also made well-reasoned arguments about the administrative and logistical overhead required of standing up an entirely new branch of the military. If a Space Force employs experts who specialize in orbital defense, one can associate that with the Marine Corps’ infantry: ultimately, it’s that edge of the war fighting apparatus that justifies the existence of the branch itself. In the Corps, however, door kickers represent the minority — many claim the rule of thumb is generally something like three support Marines to every one actively in the fight. The tasks conducted by those support Marines include everything from pay to supply and transportation. If the Space Force retains that (admittedly general) ratio, it would mean recruiting, training, and supporting three people in a support role for every one tasked specifically with orbital defense, and as Defense Secretary James Mattis has pointed out, that represents a significant investment out of a total defense budget that’s likely not to grow at a commensurate rate.
In short, establishing a new branch wouldn’t increase the budget by a sixth, it would instead divide the existing money in six portions rather than five — and that glosses over the immense startup costs associated with establishing new infrastructure, training methodologies, and physical command locations.
The debate within the Defense community has always been about getting the best bang for the space-buck, not whether or not space defense was a necessity — and to understand why, you need to look no further than the contemporary national defense boogeymen of Russia and China.
China’s militarization of space
China, the third nation in history to put an human being in orbit, was later to the game than its Russian and American competitors, but the nation has made a concerted effort to catch up in areas of orbital operations they deem most necessary. Unlike the United States and Russia, who employ civilian space agencies NASA and Roscosmos (respectively) in a capacity that remains, for the most part, independent from military operations, China’s space endeavors have never been formally delineated from the People’s Liberation Army, or China’s national military.
There’s a well-reasoned argument to be made that China made the shift toward more robust space operations over years of watching Western powers like the United States employ orbital assets as an integral part of their new war fighting doctrine, and by 2015, there were no longer any illusions about China’s concerns about countering this new methodology if it were ever to come to war between them and an orbital powerhouse like the United States. In a 2015 Defense Department report about China’s military endeavors in space, experts agreed that China had already set about developing systems that would bar a nation like the U.S. from being able to use their satellites during such a conflict through the “development of directed-energy weapons and satellite jammers.”
A subsequent report for the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission came to a similar conclusion:
Chinese analysts assess that the employment of space-based C4ISR [Command, Control, Communications, Computers, Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance] capabilities by potential adversaries, especially the United States, requires the PLA to develop capabilities to attack space systems. Based on this assessment, Chinese analysts surmise that the loss of critical sensor and communications capabilities could imperil the U.S. military’s ability to achieve victory or to achieve victory with minimal casualties.”
To this end and despite the nation’s space endeavors always being a military effort, China established the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Strategic Support Force (SSF) in 2015 — a branch specifically tasked with incorporate offensive and defensive space and cyber capabilities into the nation’s war fighting apparatus with the United States squarely in its sights.
Russia’s militarization of space
Russia’s space endeavors, as the world is well aware, date back even further than America’s — with the launch of Sputnik in 1957 effectively ushering in a new era of space sciences. Although the United States ultimately went on to “win” the space race by putting men on the moon, Russia was a number of earlier legs, including the aforementioned first satellite launch as well as putting the first human into orbit — and in keeping with this tradition, Russia also beat the rest of the world to the establishment of a space-based branch of the military not once, but twice.
Russia’s Space Forces were first stood up in 1992, shortly after the fall of the Soviet Union, but the branch lasted only five years before giving way to budgetary concerns. It was stood up again in 2001 and lasted for a solid decade before once again being dissolved — until August of 2015 when the branch was once again activated as a part of a new merger between the Russian Air Force and their Aerospace Defense Forces.
Like China, Russia’s militarized space endeavors often bleed into their public-facing efforts, and as such, they tend to keep their offensive capabilities close to the chest. According to Russia, the purpose of their space branch includes, “Monitoring space objects and identification of potential threats to the Russian Federation in space and from space, prevention of attacks as needed.” The last bit of that line, “prevention of attacks if needed,” is where they tend to categorize both offensive and defensive capabilities — as nuclear weapons have proven, a solid offense often serves as the best deterrent defense.
Image courtesy of the China National Space Administration