Originally Published 2018-07-02 06:10:48 Published on Jul 02, 2018
The implications of the American plans for a space weapons corps are still unclear
Gearing up for space wars: on America's plans to build space weapons

The announcement by US President Donald Trump in June about the creation of a “space force” or a sixth branch of the American armed forces has taken many by surprise within and outside the US The imperative by America to build space weapons, which is nothing new, goes back to the Cold War, an example being the Strategic Defense Initiative of the Reagan Administration. The creation of the new force represents an important shift at least at an institutional level. What advantages it will bring to American war-fighting capabilities are still unclear.

Domestic impact

A Republican-controlled Congress explains the push for the creation of a space corps, the purpose being to deny the Russians and the Chinese advantages in space. As Mr. Trump said at the time of the announcement, the intention is to see that the US establishes and maintains dominance in space. Ironically, the US Air Force — historically a major constituency and votary for space weapons — is not entirely enthusiastic about this new service, which could take resources away from it and the prestige that comes with being the driver of space military operations. Objections have also emerged from within the Administration.

The US Defence Secretary, James Mattis, was emphatic as well in a letter to the Congress last October that adding another military arm would only compound the organisational challenges facing the US armed services. First, it could undercut ongoing missions. Second, it could very well increase budgetary allocations in the future. Third, his objections were clear in that a space corps could undermine American efforts in the domain of joint warfare. A new space force is not merely a brand new service; it potentially increases greater organisational uncertainty within the US military. Notwithstanding these concerns, Washington’s headlong rush is the by-product of a strong commitment to preserving American advantages in space.

Nevertheless, the fundamental difficulty of a space corps is that the physical environment of space is not conducive to the conduct of military operations without incurring serious losses in the form of spacecraft and debris. And despite efforts to make spacecraft more fuel efficient, the energy requirements are enormous. Further, the technical demands of defending assets in space make the possibility of dominance and space as a domain for war-fighting a sort of chimera. Much could change as well on the political front after the Congressional elections in November; the Democrats have a different vision for space. Even if they do not fully object to its establishment, they could impose curbs on its funding if they take control of the American legislature. Beyond domestic politics, structural factors do appear to have weighed in on the Administration, particularly the exponential growth in China’s space military capabilities over the last two decades.

China and Russia’s responses

While China has reiterated its response to the Trump Administration’s announcement with its oft-repeated statement that it opposes the weaponisation of space, it knows that it is the prime target of this incipient force. With a range of terrestrial interests in direct conflict with the Americans, Beijing will be in no mood to allow US space dominance. China’s space military programme has been dedicated to building “Assassin Mace” technologies (an array of kinetic and non-kinetic means of attack) — capabilities that are geared to help win wars rapidly. Russia for its part has been shriller in its response, making it clear that it will vigorously take on the US. However, given its lack of the resources for competition, it will in all probability, for tactical reasons, align itself with China.

Implications for India

American military goals, which are still undefined in space, could still have consequences for India. While India is officially committed to PAROS, or the prevention of an arms race in outer space, it is yet to formulate a credible official response to the Trump plan. India has yet to establish a credible space command of its own. And, its inter-services rivalries will have to be resolved about the command and control.

India also has to be concerned about Mr. Trump’s move for another reason — China. Beijing’s reaction could be much stronger than its seemingly muted official response and it does possess a formidable space military programme that far exceeds current Indian capabilities. For its part, New Delhi would do well to come out with an official white paper on space weapons. The government needs to engage with multiple stakeholders directly about the role space weapons will play in India’s grand strategy. More than their war-fighting attributes, space weapons have one principal function — deterrence.

This commentary originally appeared in The Hindu.

The views expressed above belong to the author(s). ORF research and analyses now available on Telegram! Click here to access our curated content — blogs, longforms and interviews.


Harsh V. Pant

Harsh V. Pant

Professor Harsh V. Pant is Vice President – Studies and Foreign Policy at Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi. He is a Professor of International Relations ...

Read More +
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 ...

Read More +