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Make planetary defense a Space Force mission

Make planetary defense a Space Force mission
© NASA

What is the mission of the U.S. Space Force? Ever since the White House formally launched America’s newest military branch in December 2019, that question has dogged the newborn service. Today, some six months later, the answer is still very much up in the air.

But an opportunity to flesh out the duties of the Space Force is now on the horizon. The White House National Space Council recently announced plans to update the country’s National Space Policy for the first time in a decade. That facelift provides the administration with an important opening to assign primary responsibility for an all-important mission: planetary defense.

In a recent interview with Politico, celebrity astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson made the case that the Space Force’s mission should logically include asteroid defense. Tyson is arguably the most prominent advocate of this idea, but he’s hardly the only one. In fact, a blue ribbon presidential commission on the future of the aerospace industrial base recommended the very same thing way back in 2002 — when the space force was still merely conceptual.

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Today, for the first time in our nation’s history, we have a dedicated military service charged with protecting American interests in space. The Space Force already cooperates with NASA to map the asteroid threat, and already bears primary responsibility for space situational awareness and space control in the service of homeland defense. Planetary defense is quite obviously a defense mission, and it’s therefore natural that the Space Force should have primary responsibility.

The need is urgent. Few threats are as catastrophic as an asteroid or comet collision. Large impacts could — as happened to the dinosaurs — cause a global mass extinction and end human civilization. Smaller impacts could be powerful enough to destroy entire cities or entire regions. Even the smallest impacts could be mistaken for a nuclear first strike and potentially set off a nuclear war by accident.

Since 2008, Congress has requested multiple successive administrations to name a federal agency responsible for protecting our homeland from an asteroid strike. While progress on this front has been made recently in the form of the Trump administration’s 2018 National Near-Earth Object Preparedness Strategy and Action Planit’s time to take it to the next level. The U.S. Space Force should be tasked to organize, train, equip and present the necessary units and capabilities to surveil, detect, and respond to an asteroid or comet threat. Congress should not wait but codify this in this year's National Defense Authorization Act. U.S. Space Command should be tasked to plan, execute, and develop requirements for a deflection campaign, while NASA and the Department of Energy should continue to support this mission through science and technology. The Department of Homeland Security’s Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and regional combatant commands, meanwhile, should be tasked to plan for responses to preserve life and property should a collision be unavoidable. These responsibilities can be codified in an Executive Order and then made part of a formal legislative proposal to make it an enduring part of the Space Force mission.

But the likely benefits would be broader still. A Space Force that delivers peacetime benefits for homeland security is likely to enjoy strong bipartisan support. Meanwhile, owning the planetary defense mission will push the Space Force — and the country at large — in important directions which would enhance spacefaring technology. Planetary defense is a demanding mission, one requiring exquisite space domain awareness and advanced propulsion capabilities. Developing those technologies will improve Space Force capabilities, but it will also have important spillover effects that will catapult the United States into a position to exploit the emerging trillion-dollar space economy.

Other ancillary benefits can also be expected to accrue. Making Space Force an attractive and priority branch of the military will help propel interest in space, and motivate students to fill the expected requirement of the more than 10,000 new space related Science Technology Engineering and Math (STEM) jobs that experts believe will be needed to keep the U.S. competitive in that domain.

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Planetary defense is also quite obviously an important mission — one that can be expected to contribute to a positive image for the service, and a positive identity for its members, who will simultaneously be defending America and protecting the planet at large.

For all these reasons, thinking broadly about the potential role of the Space Force in the planetary defense mission makes sound strategic sense. The upcoming update of the National Space Policy gives the Administration the opportunity to do just that.

Peter Garretson is a senior fellow in Defense Studies with the American Foreign Policy Council and a strategy consultant who focuses on space and defense. He was previously the director of Air University’s Space Horizons Task ForceAmerica’s think tank for space, and was deputy director of America’s premier space strategy program, the Schriever Scholars. All views are his own.