President Donald Trump has ordered the Pentagon to begin the process of establishing a new military branch, the Space Force. It would be separate from the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marine Corps.
"We must have American dominance in space," he said during a meeting of his National Space Council Monday. "We are going to have the Air Force and we are going to have the Space Force: separate but equal. It is going to be something so important."
Trump isn’t alone. Both Republicans and Democrats support it. Congressmen Mike Rogers (R-Alabama) and Jim Cooper (D-Tennessee) - chairman and ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee's strategic forces subcommittee -- argue that the United States is losing out to nations like Russia and China, which are advancing offensive and defensive space capabilities at an alarming rate.
"The bureaucracy is always going to fight reform -- always, especially the Pentagon," Rogers told NPR in an interview. "They're fighting this because they don't want Congress meddling. ... And they've got us in this situation now where Russia and China have become near peers. They're close to surpassing us. What we're proposing would change that."
Rogers is right that the Pentagon tends to resist change. President Truman fought similar turf battles when he pushed through the National Security Act of 1947, which merged the Departments of War and Navy into a single Defense Department, and established the US Air Force as an independent military service.
However, the threats posed to satellite security by potentially hostile states like Russia and China are real. Secretary of Defense Mattis' national defense strategy labeled space a new "warfighting domain."
The Threat – Who and What
Russia and China are increasingly pursuing the ability to attack America’s space-based assets. Although many don’t realize it, space-based capabilities like GPS, communications, and reconnaissance satellites are what allows American forces to operate across the globe. And, that has not gone unnoticed in Beijing or Moscow.
This year, Adm. Cecil D. Haney, commander of U.S. Strategic Command told an audience at the Center for a New American Security, “Adversaries and potential adversaries are developing, and in some cases demonstrating, disruptive and destructive counterspace capabilities. Furthermore, they are exploiting what they perceive as space vulnerabilities - threatening the vital, national, civil, scientific and economic benefits to the U.S. and the global community.”
“Russia’s military doctrine emphasized space as a crucial component of its defense strategy, and Russia has publicly stated they are researching and developing counterspace capabilities to degrade, disrupt and deny other users of space,” Haney said, adding that “Russia’s leaders also openly assert that Russian armed forces have anti-satellite (ASAT) weapons, conduct ASAT research and employ satellite jammers.”
“Last year," Haney said, "the Washington Times reported Russian President Putin as saying that Russia, following the Chinese military, is building state-of-the-art weapons that would ‘guarantee [for] Russia the fulfillment of space defense tasks for the period until 2020.’”
While Russia—and the Soviet Union before it—might have been America’s closest rivals in space, these days the most dangerous challenge comes from Beijing. “China, like Russia, has advanced ‘directed energy’ capabilities that could be used to track or blind satellites, and like Russia, has demonstrated the ability to perform complex maneuvers in space,” Haney said.
“In November, China conducted its sixth test of a hypersonic strike vehicle, and several news sources reported an ASAT the previous month. Of course, many of us are still dealing with China’s 2007 ASAT test, which created more than 3,000 pieces of debris, adding significantly to the congested space environment”.
A new report by the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission offers additional insights into China’s burgeoning space weapons program. “China is pursuing a broad and robust array of counterspace capabilities, which includes direct-ascent anti-satellite missiles, co-orbital anti-satellite systems, computer network operations, ground-based satellite jammers and directed energy weapons,” the report reads.
The types of space based weapons can seem confusing, so it may be better to think of them falling into four separate categories. These are, directed-energy weapons, kinetic-energy weapons against missile targets, kinetic-energy weapons against surface targets, and space-based conventional weapons against surface targets.
Directed-energy weapons destroy targets with energy transmitted at the speed of light over long distances. The other three weapon types destroy targets by delivering mass to the target using either the kinetic energy of their own velocity and mass, or conventional explosives.
Each type of weapon operates in different ways, is suitable for different kinds of targets, has different response times, and requires different numbers of space based weapons in orbit to be effective.
Directed-energy weapons include a range of weapons from electronic jammers to lasers. While jammers need to transmit only enough power to compete with the targeted receivers’ intended signals, destroying ballistic missile boosters requires high power lasers, which are on the cusp of being small and powerful enough to be sent into space.
Directed-energy weapons like lasers can destroy targets on or above the earth’s surface, depending on the wavelength of the laser and the weather.
A technological problem with lasers is being able to track the high speed target and remain on target long enough to destroy it. After destroying a target, it can quickly acquire a new target if it has enough power for another shot. When defending against a salvo of missiles, the space based laser will only be able to destroy a certain number of missiles while they are in their vulnerable boost phase. That number will depend on the laser’s distance from the launch position and the hardness of the missile target. The farther the laser weapon is based from the target and the harder the material of the target, the fewer missiles the laser will be able to destroy.
Because the distance of an orbiting laser satellite from missile launch points is predictable, an enemy launching missiles will be able to choose to launch at times that allow the maximum number of missiles to penetrate the defense.
A weapon type that doesn’t have some of the problems of lasers is Kinetic-Energy Weapons. They can be used against missile targets by destroying targets outside the earth’s atmosphere or penetrating the earth’s atmosphere.
The first type could provide an additional layer of defense against targets that leak through the laser weapons defense. They would destroy targets using the kinetic energy of high-velocity impact.
As with directed energy weapons, the short response time for missile defense would
require dozens of weapons in space.
Although the media makes much of China’s hypersonic kinetic energy weapons, they do have weaknesses. Kinetic-energy weapons for use against missile targets are unable to respond quickly to the missile threat. They are not able to engage targets below 60 km because a light weight interceptor needs to stay out of the atmosphere or they overheat and slow down. This probably means that the intercept could only occur after the missile’s boost phase, when multiple warheads and decoys may have been deployed, which would probably saturate the system.
Another space based weapons system are Kinetic-Energy Weapons Against Surface Targets. Like space-based kinetic-energy weapons that destroy missiles with their own mass moving at very high velocities. Unlike weapons that engage targets outside the earth’s atmosphere, these must be large enough to survive reentry through the earth’s atmosphere with a speed high enough to be destructive.
To preserve accuracy and energy through reentry, they have to attack targets at steep, nearly vertical trajectories. This would mean having either a great number weapons in low orbits to have one within reach of a target whenever needed or a smaller number at higher orbits with longer times to reach targets.
A reasonable high-altitude constellation would place about six weapons in orbit for each target in order to achieve response times of two to three hours from initiation of the attack to destruction of the target.
The effort required to deliver one of these weapons to orbit and then to a target would be similar to that required for a large intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). Such weapons could be effective against stationary (or slowly moving) surface targets that are vulnerable to vertical penetration of a few meters, such as large ships, missile silos, hardened aircraft shelters, tall buildings, fuel tanks, and munitions storage bunkers. Because of their meteorite like speed entering the atmosphere, these weapons would be very difficult to defend against.
The irony of hypersonic kinetic energy weapons is that are more desirable for countries like Russia and China that are seeking global power projection without the investment the US has made in aircraft carriers, long range bombers, or ballistic missiles. This explains why the US is behind China and Russia in this class of weapons. The US can easily destroy a tank in any remote area with aircraft carriers, long range bombers, or cruise missile without investing in space based weapons.
The final class is Space-Based Conventional Weapons Against Surface Targets. Space-based conventional weapons would inherit their accuracy, reach, target sets, and lethality from the conventional munitions they deliver. Such weapons could engage a broader range of targets than kinetic-energy weapons, including maneuvering targets and more deeply buried targets. They could use “old” technology. The systems used to deliver them from space aren’t that different from those developed for the return of film from orbit in the 1960s.
These conventional weapons are much more responsive. They would take about 10 minutes from weapon release to deployment. Small, precision conventional weapons in orbit would not be cost effective since their launch costs are higher than the costs of delivering them from aircraft or ships. It would also take about six weapons in orbit to keep one within 10 minutes of a target on earth. Again, the US can easily destroy a tank in any area with aircraft carriers, long range bombers, or cruise missile without investing in space based weapons.
This flexibility of earth based weapons also means an attack on a satellite might be met with an American Tomahawk cruise missile launched at an enemy’s staging area.
Why a Space Command?
This is a question that many are asking.
Currently the Army, Air Force, and Navy all have “space commands” that responds to that service’s specific needs. Does an independent Space Command that combines all of these agencies mean efficiency by combining and eliminating duplicate programs? Or is it another level of bureaucracy that makes the US military less efficient.
Needless to say, the current services, especially the Air Force, are opposed to a new service.
There is also the question of where the lines of responsibility will be. Will the Space Command really take over all space assets? That’s unlikely. A good example is the US Air Force, which has fewer aircraft than the US Navy. Will there be a delineation at 100 kilometers (the legal definition of space)? What if an aircraft can go over 100 kilometers? Will that asset become part of the US Space Command instead of the Air Force?
What biases will a Space Command have that hinders coordination with the other services? One example is the Air Force, which prefers high performance fighter aircraft instead of the A-10 aircraft, which is preferred by the army for close air support instead of the new F-35 fighter.
Will a Space Command focus on space war instead of looking at providing support for the Army?
Will a Space Command help win the next war? Remember that the US won WWII without an Air Force, just an Army Air Corps and Naval Aviation.
Given that the US has several space commands designed to fit specific needs, there is a serious question about the need for a new, unified Space Command.
Given the cost of a new service and the duplication, probably not.