On December 20, 2019, President Donald Trump signed a $1.4 trillion government spending package that included a number of spending measures involving healthcare taxes, raising the tobacco age limit, and the U.S.-Mexico wall. Also included was a new Pentagon budget, which included funding to launch a new branch of the military: the Space Force. The new division will start small, with a first year budget of $40 million and 200 staff, tiny in comparison to the Pentagon’s overall spending on space operations, estimated to be around $14 billion per year. This is 3 years after former President Obama signed the National Defense Authorization Act, a policy that called for the Pentagon to start research, development, test and evaluation of space-based systems for missile defense.
On January 24, the president announced a new logo for the division on Twitter, and almost immediately comments emerged regarding its resemblance to a fictional logo from Star Trek, a popular science fiction television and movie series.
Hundreds of responses emerged on social media, ranging from criticism to ridicule, with George Takei (an actor who portrayed Mr. Sulu, a character in the series) even jokingly requesting royalties for use of the logo.
The establishment of the Space Force had military support at the time, but public awareness was minimal, with many Americans unaware of its existence or its purpose. Space exploration had largely been a civilian matter, led by the NASA and commercial space businesses such as SpaceX. But with an increasing daily reliance on space-based technologies by the civil sector as well as the military, another arms race has been steadily growing, except this time there are no national borders to define territories.
The Space Race
The original Space Race was a competition between the Soviet Union and the United States in the 20th century, two Cold War rivals seeking to outperform each other with achievements in outer space. The military agenda arose after World War II, with each side increasingly concerned about nuclear ballistic missile armament, viewing technological superiority as a deterrent to the opposing side. A number of first achievements followed, putting humans in orbit and eventually to the moon. Following the end of the Cold War and the rise of satellite technology, the space race lost momentum and missions became more focused on commercial and scientific applications instead of military. Businesses such as Inmarsat, Iridium, Sirius/XM, and Dish Network deployed commercial satellites that enabled worldwide communications, media, weather, and scientific services. The International Space Station program, a collaboration between fifteen nations, deployed the largest habitable satellite in Earth orbit, which has been used by scientific missions for more than 19 years.
However, satellite technologies were deployed by the military as well. The Global Positioning System (GPS) was created by the US Department of Defense in 1973, and now is composed of a group of 31 satellites orbiting the Earth, operated by the new US Space Force (formerly Air Force Space Command). GPS is a service that many people use in their daily lives, with location services providing numerous conveniences to people and enabling navigation and mapping services across the world. But the US military also has an operational dependence on the GPS system, and because it is a military asset, they have the ability to selectively revoke access to it when necessary. Military communication, meteorology and defense satellite installations are also used to establish worldwide surveillance, logistics, and ballistic countermeasure capabilities.
The Not-So-Final Frontier
On January 11, 2007, China tested an anti-satellite weapon on one of its own satellites, spreading space debris into orbit, but also causing an international uproar, as a 1967 UN treaty banned the use of weapons in space. On November 18, 2015, Russia successfully conducted a test of its PL-19 Nudol anti-satellite missile system, and on March 27, 2019, India conducted its own successful anti-satellite tests.
In 2015, the Chinese military launched a new division, the Strategic Support Force, consolidating the nation’s space and cyberspace capabilities into a single organization tasked with establishing superiority in electronic, space, and cyber warfare activities. Intelligence gathered has indicated that in the event of a conflict with the US, China’s first strategic targets will be disabling military communications, navigation, and meteorological satellite assets in addition to launching electronic cyber warfare attacks in order to cripple core communications and coordination capabilities.
There is also the threat of the deployment of space-based weaponry. The destructive potential of orbital kinetic weapons is similar to nuclear weapons without the radioactive fallout. Telephone-pole sized metal rods dropped from Earth orbit onto a city could cause as much damage as 7.2 tons of dynamite. Advancement in laser and particle physics makes space-based beam weapons that could blind American GPS or communications systems more than just science fiction.
Scientific advances provides us with tools that can be used for constructive purposes or destructive purposes. Space exploration and research has granted us enormous capabilities that we depend on every day. But it also has the frightening potential for destruction, and the Space Force must be ready to protect its citizens from those dangers.