Whether a Space Force exists or not, the Pentagon's research arm is looking at space strategically.
You can sometimes tell what the military is thinking, at least unofficially, by checking out what its most public-facing research arm, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is working on. Recently, their focus seemed to be on cyberspace, with ambitious projects geared at some fantastic future tech like the merging of humans with computers to fight cyber threats as part of the Computers and Humans Exploring Software Security (CHESS) program. Before that, it was the creation of autonomous robots that could be deployed to accomplish a variety of tasks. Today, it seems like DARPA’s eyes are looking upward, all the way into space.
The agency announced its latest challenge program last week, a contest where millions in prize money, as well as a potential leg up on future defense contracts for the resulting technology, is awarded to organizations that can overcome a previously impossible situation. This time, DARPA wants contestants to create a launch vehicle, basically a rocket or other space-worthy craft, that can deliver a payload into space twice in a matter of weeks.
Specifically, teams competing in the DARPA Launch Challenge would need to have their vehicle or launch system deliver two previously unknown payloads into space only weeks apart. They would also not be given much notice about the orbit that payload needs to get to, or what sites would be used to launch their creation. According to the DARPAtv YouTube site, several launch facilities could be used for the challenge, including vertical launching sites like those at Cape Canaveral, Florida and horizontal launching facilities such as those at the Mojave Air and Space Port in California. In total, the potential launch sites span five different states.
Teams would be expected to build a launch system which could deliver its payload to space and then quickly do the same thing again from a different facility. As such, teams must not only produce a working launch vehicle, but also a concept of operations that includes the ability to setup and launch quickly without a lot of pre-planning.
If you read about the internal goals of the challenge, it seems like the launch vehicle, while important, may not be the biggest goal of the program. Instead, DARPA may be trying to fundamentally change the way the military works in space. Today, almost any space launch is planned years in advance, with satellites and other technology put into space to assist in very strategic purposes. That has served our nation well in the past, but competition from other countries and even the beginnings of a sort of militarization of space could make those methods obsolete.
As DARPA Launch Challenge Program Manager Todd Master explained to DARPAtv, “We want to see a shift to much more tactical use of space capabilities. And really what that does is transform the way that we use space in the same way we use other capabilities like air.”
It’s interesting that the DARPA Launch Challenge was announced at the same time that Congress was debating the need for a dedicated Space Force, even as the estimated costs of the proposed new branch of the military are rising. The fact that both China and Russia have already started to look for more tactical ways to use space militarily is one of the reasons why defenders of the Space Force concept say it’s needed.
“We currently maintain an advantage relative to these competitors, but our space enterprise was built for a strategic environment that no longer exists and our margin of dominance is quickly shrinking,” Acting Secretary of Defense Patrick M. Shanahan said at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing last week.
Assuming the DARPA Launch Challenge is successful alongside other efforts to make military applications in space more tactical, a dedicated Space Force may be required to coordinate those efforts. Having another branch of the military handle space operations in addition to their primary responsibilities running air, ground or sea warfare may not be possible or efficient in the fast-moving space race of the future.
Today, most military space operations are carried out by the Air Force Space Command from its headquarters at Peterson Air Force Base, Colorado. They do everything from monitoring the Department of Defense’s satellites to watching the radars that prevent ballistic missile sneak attacks. But they are not configured for the kind of tactical operations like the DARPA Launch Challenge proposes, or to counter moves by countries like China and Russia should they become more adept at destroying or disrupting our strategic space resources.
The situation reminds me of the history of the Air Force, which began life as the United States Army Air Corps (USAAC), which was established as a branch of the Army from 1926 to 1941. At the time, both the Army and the Navy wanted to continue to use the USAAC to support their service, mostly by engaging in close support operations with fighters and smaller aircraft. But World War II brought the need for strategic, long-range bombing capabilities as well as new technologies like the Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress bomber. Those kinds of missions and technologies were outside of the scope and expertise of either the Army or the Navy, which helped to establish the Air Force as an independent service.
Just like the Air Force emerged from the Army’s USAAC, it may be time for a Space Force to takeoff from the Air Force’s Space Command. New space-based technologies and the doctrines required to employ them effectively will require a dedicated staff whose sole mission is conducting space operations. And it would be better to establish that force now, before we lose our edge to potential rivals, and long before a crisis or mission requires it.
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
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