The case for a new branch of the military: United States Space Force

The case for a new branch of the military: United States Space Force
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When President Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpSenate GOP budget ignores Trump, cuts defense Trump says he'll nominate Stephen Moore to Fed White House: ISIS territory in Syria has been 100 percent eliminated MORE suggested that a new branch of the military, to be called the United States Space Force, might be created, reactions came in two forms. Many people, attracted to the idea for its science fiction elements and its coolness value, cheered. In an era when missions to Mars and lunar bases are once again being seriously pursued, a space-faring military service sounds pretty attractive. Some members of the House have been pushing for the creation of a Space Corps for the past year, though the matter has been consigned to a study.

Others, however, rolled their eyes as they do at anything that comes out of the president’s mouth. The Air Force, which is currently tasked with military operations in space, has also taken a dim view. The attitude is ironic since the Air Force was part of the United States Army until shortly after World War II.

But why have a Space Force?

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Until recently, military operations in space have consisted of deploying platforms in orbit that gather and convey information. Communications satellites enable real-time linkages between military units. Navigation satellites ensure that ships, planes, and even land vehicles know where they are at any given moment and where they need to go. Reconnaissance satellites help military commanders know where the enemy is, what his capabilities are, and what he is up to.

 

Now, the United States, Russia, and China are developing weapons to attack and destroy one another’s space assets. The ability to deny someone the benefits of space platforms has military planners across the planet pondering how to counter that capability. Hardening the platforms, active defense measures, and rapid replacement of satellites are among the strategies being contemplated.

In the meanwhile, some policymakers, such as Sen. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzCNN town halls put network at center of Dem primary The Memo: Trump can't let go of McCain grudge Michael Bennet 'encouraged' in possible presidential bid: report MORE (R-Texas) have advocated the building of space-based missile defense systems, an idea first proposed during the 1980s-era SDI program. Advances in technology and the decline in launch costs make such systems more practical than they were 30 years ago.

The problem is that the space environment, even just in low Earth orbit, is like no place anyone has been called upon to make war in. Vacuum, microgravity, extremes of heat and cold, radiation, and even orbital mechanics, combine to create unique challenges not present in the air, on the sea, or on land. The characteristics of the space environment alone call for a separate branch of the military, a Space Force, as it were, to ensure the continuance of American power. 

In addition to terrestrial enemies, a United States Space Force could be called upon to fight an enemy from space. By “enemy” one does not refer to aliens. Alien invasions are the stuff of science fiction, best confined to movies such as “Independence Day.” However, an enemy does exist in the form of Earth-approaching asteroids.

A huge rock struck the Earth 65 million years ago in the vicinity of the Yucatan Peninsula. The resulting shock wave, firestorm, and cloud of debris brought the age of the dinosaurs to an end and heralded the rise of mammals and, eventually, humans. A similar event today would end the human race. 

Depending on when a dinosaur killer asteroid was detected, there may be little we can do to stop it. One mission that could be assigned to the Space Force, besides keeping the peace beyond Earth, would be to stop such a celestial doomsday. The ability to ward off a deep impact would be worth whatever is spent to extend American military power to the heavens.

A more mundane task that might be suited for the Space Force would be clearing space junk, the swarms of dead satellites and pieces of satellites that threaten space navigation. While many talk about space junk, no one does anything about it. The removal and destruction of this hazard would render a great service and would hone the Space Force’s operational skills even if no shooting war ever broke out.

A war in space would be like nothing ever before experienced and would little resemble what is depicted in science fiction. A Space Force would give America the ability to deter it if possible and wage it if necessary.

Mark Whittington, who writes frequently about space and politics, has published a political study of space exploration entitled Why is It So Hard to Go Back to the Moon? as well as The Moon, Mars and Beyond. He blogs at Curmudgeons Corner.  He is published in the Wall Street Journal, Forbes, The Hill, USA Today, the LA Times, and the Washington Post, among other venues.