Why a Space Force? A Look at the U.S. Military’s Newest and Most Misunderstood Branch

February 14, 2021 Topic: Space Blog Brand: The Buzz Tags: Space ForceU.S. Air ForceJoe BidenChinaRussia

Why a Space Force? A Look at the U.S. Military’s Newest and Most Misunderstood Branch

Contrary to what the critics say, the branch will serve an important role. It proved its worth within a month of its creation.

The U.S. Space Force serves the critical role of protecting America’s space infrastructure—which enables everything from credit cards to maximizing agriculture production. But America’s newest military branch is also the most misunderstood in Washington and across the country. 

“Wow, Space Force. It’s the plane of today,” White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said when asked if the Biden administration planned to keep it. 

That’s the problem. The Air Force’s primary focus is on the latest airplane, not on space.

Former U.S. Sen. Bob Smith and members of the congressional Space Commission brought up the idea of a separate Space Force in a May 2001 report. 9/11 likely changed priorities. Air Force budgets required planes, bombs and drones—not countering Chinese anti-satellite capabilities that were then a matter of discussion. Today they are realities. 

The idea of a U.S. Space Force conjures images of men and women fighting in sci-fi movies, or the scene of U.S. Space Marines fighting baddies in the 1979 James Bond film Moonraker.

Its connection with former President Donald Trump makes it controversial in some quarters. 

Mark Hamill, known best for his role in Star Wars, tweeted: “So they grab the ‘Guardians’ from your movies, they use the ‘Force’ from our movies... then they have the gall to just steal their logo from Star Trek? Let's file a 3-way joint lawsuit & really nail these larcenous bastards! #MayTheDorksBeWithYou.”

The reality is more mundane. 

Space Force was implemented by President Donald Trump, making it controversial in some quarters. The concept of a distinct force, however, has been debated in Defense Department policy papers since the 1991 Persian Gulf War. 

The Gulf War revolutionized thinking about the military’s use of space.

U.S. forces relied on the then-novel Global Positioning System (GPS) and its network of satellites to navigate through the featureless deserts of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Iraq. Satellites also warned U.S. troops of incoming Iraqi Scuds.

“And I think Desert Storm left no doubt to people that routine and reliable use of space forces enable our national security forces. I realize that many present helped make the vision of space operations a reality for our joint war-fighter team,” former Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Ronald Fogelman said in a 1995 address to the  Armed Forces Communications-Electronics Association, calling Space the “fourth dimension of warfare.”

A Rumsfeld Commission report released in January 2001 warned that the diffusion of U.S. military space assets among the U.S. Air Force and other agencies and branches including the U.S. Army and Navy harmed the nation’s space assets. 

Adm. David Jeremiah, who took over headship of the commission after Donald Rumsfeld was named Defense Secretary in Dec. 2000, said it found that the Department of Defense was “not very well arranged to meet the national security space needs of the 21st century.” 

The transfer of Army and Navy space-based systems to the Space Force is currently under review at the Defense Department. 

Many concepts discussed by the Rumsfeld Commission were reflected in the Space Force’s August 2020 doctrine paper, including the need to safeguard space assets from competitors. America’s vulnerabilities—then, as now—included the GPS, spy satellites, and communications satellites.

The Rumsfeld Commission report warned that America faced a “Space Pearl Harbor” unless the threats from Chinese and other nations’ anti-satellite capabilities are taken seriously. 

“Those hostile to the U.S. possess, or can acquire on the global market, the means to deny, disrupt or destroy U.S. space systems by attacking satellites in space, communications links to and from the ground or ground stations that command the satellites and process their data,” according to the report.

Even then, it was clear China could become a threat. Beijing had systems under development to defeat America in “a high-tech and future space-based future war.” 

The commission foresaw China attacking U.S. space-based assets in the event of war over Taiwan. Their concerns from twenty years ago have been realized. 

China’s work on anti-satellite capabilities continues at a fast pace, according to the Pentagon’s 2020 report to Congress on Chinese military power.  In 2007, China tested an Anti-Satellite missile (ASAT) that killed a weather satellite, creating a field of space debris. It also conducted a successful ASAT test in 2014. 

A recent Chinese anti-ballistic missile test may actually have been an ASAT missile test, according to an article that appeared in the bulletin of the China Aerospace Studies Institute of the U.S. Air University.

China also developed ground-based lasers to blind satellites, orbiting space robots that can capture other nations’ satellites and satellites that can spy on other nations’ satellites from orbit.

Similarly, Russia conducted its own ASAT test missile test in December 2018, and a Russian satellite shadowed an American spy satellite, possibly to spy on it in January 2020.

The Space Force proved its worth within a month of its creation. Last January it detected the launch of Iranian ballistic missiles toward Iraq’s al-Asad airbase where U.S. forces were based. The Space Force is credited with saving lives by giving the U.S. forces stationed there a chance to take shelter.

The U.S. Army and Navy cannot provide that detection because it’s beyond their land- and sea-based competencies. Space Force is essential because it focuses exclusively on Space, which frees up land- and air-based military branches to focus on what they do best without distraction.

John Rossomando is a Senior Analyst for Defense Policy and served as Senior Analyst for Counterterrorism at The Investigative Project on Terrorism for eight years. His work has been featured in numerous publications such as The American Thinker, Daily Wire, Red Alert Politics, CNSNews.com, The Daily Caller, Human Events, Newsmax, The American Spectator, TownHall.com and Crisis Magazine. He also served as senior managing editor of The Bulletin, a 100,000-circulation daily newspaper in Philadelphia and received the Pennsylvania Associated Press Managing Editors first-place award in 2008 for his reporting.

Image: Reuters.