Are the U.S. Space Forces Starting to Muster?

Vadim Sadovski/

When President Donald Trump proposed creating the Space Force as a separate branch of the military, quite a few people ended up scratching their heads. While it would be cool to have a bunch of sleek spaceships like in Star Trek, the sad truth is that we are probably decades or even centuries away from anything close to technology like that, if we ever get there at all. Looked at pessimistically, we would get about as much value out of creating a military branch of time travelers, let’s call them Paladins of the Past, charged with protecting our history from temporal manipulation. It might make for great sci-fi but would not offer much practical value.

We also already have the most advanced, peaceful space program in the world through NASA. Just this spring they launched TESS, the short name for the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite, which is bristling with artificial intelligence designed to optimize the search for extraterrestrial, intelligent life. Nobody else is even close to something like TESS.

But NASA works on peaceful projects, and the idea of a militarized space force has been kicked around Washington for a while. The House included such a provision in the fiscal 2018 National Defense Authorization Act, calling the new military branch the “Space Corps.” That idea died in the Senate, though the Defense Department was asked to study the issue.

Trump’s support has given the idea new life, and the Air Force was asked to take the lead on proposing what an independent space command might look like. Previously, the Air Force’s focus was on integrating space-based assets, such as military satellites, into the future operations of all branches of service. They have been working on developing a Multi-Domain Command and Control system which would accomplish that. Meanwhile, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency has been tooling away on a similar system called Hallmark which was designed to provide better situational awareness in space, especially in the lower Earth orbit zones, which are cluttered with everything from satellites to space junk.

Then there are the potential threats from longtime rivals Russia and China to consider, both of which are in the process of beefing up their own space forces. China has already created the Strategic Support Force to manage its space operations, though that branch also handles cyberspace and electronic warfare. Among other capabilities, they are perfecting weapons that can destroy satellites, which could serve to further weaponize space. Russia is also interested in projecting power through space-based activities, but are only starting to develop offensive and defensive capabilities there.

Compared to Russia and China, it would seem that we are a little behind in creating a dedicated space force, though our capabilities in this area still completely outpace any rivals. However, a specialized space force might serve to focus efforts and maintain that advantage.

Last month, we got a glimpse of what a new space force might look like, thanks to one of the least secret memos ever created by the Air Force. Although it was labeled for official use only, and not for distribution, I counted 14 news outlets online that claimed to have obtained a copy of it, including three that said they had “exclusively” gotten access. I was able to read a PDF of it that someone unofficially, and anonymously, posted.

The memo defines what the Air Force thinks would be a solid beginning to our country’s first Space Force. It includes 13,000 new personnel, space cadets I suppose, in addition to those already working in space in some capacity. According to the memo, they are needed because “the overhead required will initially overwhelm the joint space professionals that make up the bulk of the workforce associated with space.”

The new service would additionally cost $13 billion over the next five years, including $2.2 billion in order to set up a headquarters and $7.2 billion for new assets and equipment. The Air Force plan is not the only one in play and contrasts in a few areas with a proposal by Deputy Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan, which called for a tight integration between the new Space Force and the National Reconnaissance Office, which works extensively with satellites for gathering intelligence. The Air Force proposal envisions much more of a truly independent force, even objecting to a White House plan to create an assistant secretary of defense for space to help guide the new service.

Given all the recent momentum, it seems like a military space force of some type is an inevitability at this point. It might be an exciting field to work in. I don’t suppose I would mind becoming a space cadet at some point, but only if the Paladins of the Past aren’t hiring.

John Breeden II is an award-winning journalist and reviewer with over 20 years of experience covering technology. He is the CEO of the Tech Writers Bureau, a group that creates technological thought leadership content for organizations of all sizes. Twitter: @LabGuys