Expert Speak Raisina Debates
Published on Dec 23, 2019
The US Space Force: What does it mean?

The Trump Administration signed into law the creation of a new United States Space Force (USSF). Following considerable debate within both the American military and strategic community and the United States Congress, this USSF will become the sixth service following the Army, Air Force, Navy, Marines and the Coast Guard. The USSF will be a part of the Department of the United States Air Force (USAF), just as the United States Marine Corps (USMC) is a part of the Department of the United States Navy (USN). The initial funding to get started is a modest 40 million USD – a figure that will grow exponentially in the coming months and years with a budget enjoying several billion dollars. Personnel from the Air Force Command (AFC) will be moved to the USSF.

President Trump believes the new space force, whose establishment he strongly supported, will allow the US to “deter aggression and control the ultimate high ground”. He went on to state that “Among the grave threats to our national security, American superiority in space is absolutely vital.” Trump’s statement is only partially accurate in that, as in the USSF the primary mission will be deterrence whereas its capacity to establish “control” in space is problematic. It is firstly, imbued with an optimistic view that the United States can and will dominate space because of its superior technology and its greater experience in initiating and sustaining space missions and operations whether civilian or military. P

Trump’s statement about dominating space is impossible to attain, particularly in today’s crowded space environment involving a large number of space actors, which is more than what was the case two decades ago. Space was largely free of contestation twenty years ago with the US acting unfettered. Take for instance Brigadier General Thomas James, the Director of Operations of the United States Space Command (USSC) listed three primary missions but most critical of which he observed earlier this month was No-1 is to deter conflict to extend into space, to keep conflict out of space. Our take is no one wins if war extends into space. Because of debris patterns, it can last for hundreds of years.” Although, James listed two other mission goals, which are important and deserve a mention. These missions for the USSF include defending assets in space in the event conflict extends into the domain and finally to defeat any adversary not necessarily through the space domain, but through “multi domain operations”. The latter can occur through the Electromagnetic Spectrum (EMS) in the electronic warfare and the cyberspace, which in part is dependent on the EMS.

Fundamentally the focus is on deterrence due to the constraining effects of the physics of the space environment means notions like space “control” and “dominance” are extremely difficult at a minimum and the collateral damage to space assets emerging from a fighting a war in space will in all likelihood be catastrophic. Indeed, the immediate casualty will be the most basic requirements that we humans have come take for granted like satellite television, the Internet, cash withdrawals from ATM machines and a whole host of civilian and commercial uses, let alone the pursuit of one of humankind’s greatest endeavours – space exploration.

Thus, space deterrence is the primary mission of the newly established USSF and USSC. Consequently, statements above from high ranking US military officials tasked to oversee space military planning, missions and operations point to a sobering reality about the counterproductive effects of fighting a war, particularly one that generates a large cloud of debris in space and renders the near space and outer space environment utterly unusable.

Nevertheless, where presumably Trump’s claims about controlling the “high ground” of space makes sense, not because the USSF can actually or literally dominate or “control” the high ground, but more because the notion of “superiority” becomes a rallying cry to stay ahead of the curve in the realm of technological competition with peer or near peer competitors. In addition, not evident in Trump’s statement, yet a plausible inference is that the US does not want to be lulled into complacency, stays on its toes and avoids facing any technological surprises thrown up in the form of a key breakthrough by its peer competitors to whom might accrue some relative technological and scientific advantage with military applications. These peer competitors most prominently include the Peoples Republic of China (PRC) and the Russian Federation. The bottom line being – the US wants to sustain “superiority” so that it is not left behind trailing its peer competitors, whether in developing military capabilities that tackles existing and evolving threats as well as helping anticipate future goals, both technological and operational for pursuit within the space domain. In addition, it ensures that space remains functionally important for an array of terrestrial military missions.

Other benefits that are likely to emerge with the creation of the Space Force are organisational, streamlining operations and personnel. As Barbara Barrett the Secretary of the Air Force noted, “Now is the time to establish a team, a separate service totally focused on organizing, training and equipping space forces”. Here in lies the most consequential rationale for establishing a Space Force akin to the USSF for states such as India that are intensifying their use of the space domain and the military applications of space technology. In July 2019, New Delhi established the Defence Space Agency (DSA) that will help it manage and execute space operations and identify and apply space technology for military missions and operations more effectively. Whether India needs, a separate Space Force is premature. New Delhi presumably requires greater experience in running the DSA under which several distributed space related organisations and assets are being consolidated. Reverting to the USSF, the elusive goal of attaining and maintaining “space superiority” is primarily aspirational or an ideal. With the odd exception, no one seriously believes within the American space and wider military establishment think it possible with the creation of the USSF.

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Kartik Bommakanti

Kartik Bommakanti

Kartik Bommakanti is a Senior Fellow with the Strategic Studies Programme. Kartik specialises in space military issues and his research is primarily centred on the ...

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