The United States Armed Forces – the army, navy, marine corps, coast guard and air force – will soon acquire a sixth service branch: its Space Force. U.S. President Donald Trump’s instructions on the formation of the Space Force came while speaking at the enactment of the National Space Transportation Policy Act . Washington aims to use this domestic legislation to regulate the growing international military and commercial spacecraft traffic and implicitly maintain its military’s upper hand in outer space.
The astropolitical trigger for this legislation arose during the decade of the 2010s when space military units began to be established: France was the first nation to form an Inter-Armed Forces Space Command (2010), which is headed by the French chief of staff of the armies. Moscow established the Russian Aerospace Forces in 2015 by merging the Russian Air Force and the Russian Aerospace Defence Forces. The same year also saw the emergence of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Strategic Support Force. In 2016, Berlin established the Cyber and Information Domain Service Headquarters.
These developments have disconcerted Washington – even if it continues to be the strongest military and civilian player in outer space. Until now, nearly all divisions of the U.S. Armed Forces have had an independently functioning military space operations command. (For example, the U.S. Air Force operates the Air Force Space Command, the U.S. Navy the Naval Network Warfare Command, the U.S. Army its Space and Missile Defense Command, and the U.S. Strategic Command its Joint Functional Component Command for Space.) Each command carries out distinct Research, Development, Test and Evaluation (RDTE) programmes and combat and non-combat operations, often through collaboration within the U.S. armed forces, and with civilian agencies and private contractors. Washington now wants to go one step ahead of the competition and integrate its space commands into a unified Space Force for better synergy.
Military forces around the world frequently undergo organisational restructuring for better battle-readiness, smoother functioning and periodic overhaul. Such integration-driven restructuring needs substantiation to show whether the units to be merged will function seamlessly thereafter. Three examples show that over the years, the U.S. space commands acquired niche capabilities that were useful in internal collaboration. Therefore, the enduring synergy which the formation of the Space Force hopes to achieve is only a short way off.
The Missile Defense Agency (MDA), primarily responsible for the U.S.’ ballistic missile defence systems – Terminal High Altitude Aerial Defense (THAAD), Patriot and Aegis – in its earlier avatar as the Ballistic Missile Defense Organisation (BMDO), undertook a space mission to the Moon in 1994, named Clementine. Clementine’s demonstration of innovative in-flight autonomous operations, building light-weight sensors, and a new star-tracking system for positioning and navigation  helped the Pentagon advance its military satellite technology capacities across its constituent armed forces, besides offering it an operational familiarity with the Earth-Moon space.
Clementine was also a hugely successful scientific exploration. It found the first chemical signatures of the presence of water ice on the lunar south-pole and generated the first multispectral and topographic global maps of the Moon  .
Equally, it was illustrative of the immense value the Pentagon attaches to internal collaboration. Clementine was led by the BMDO, but the U.S. Navy’s Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) was the prime contractor for its spacecraft’s design, manufacturing and launch vehicle integration ; the federally-funded Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory , an independent RDTE outfit, provided the spacecraft-on-board cameras; the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), the civilian space agency, managed the scientific exploration, and it was launched from the U.S. Air Force’s Vandenberg Air Force Base.
A second example of collaboration within the Pentagon is that since 2014, the U.S. Air Force Space Command (AFSC) has successfully launched several satellites under its Geosynchronous Space Situational Awareness Programme (GSSAP). GSSAP satellites track, undertake surveillance of other satellites, and monitor almost all earth-orbiting objects from a vantage point, approximately 36,000 km from the Earth’s surface .
The GSSAP is also becoming an indispensable trouble-shooter for other branches of the armed forces. Its ability to undertake rendezvous and proximity operations has been particularly useful in identifying the whereabouts and technical glitches in the U.S. Navy’s Mobile User Objective System (MUOS) narrow-band communication satellite, launched in 2016, which did not reach its desired orbital slot after launch. The GSSAP satellite has thus helped in the upkeep of the U.S. Navy’s satellite grid, which is meant for network-centric warfare.
Troubles can originate from nature too. The U.S. Navy is the world’s foremost ‘blue-water’ (or global) navy because of its massive constellations of communications and Earth-observation satellites. It diligently curates scientific research in atmospheric sciences, heliophysics, high-energy astrophysics, and space weather monitoring.  It cultivates these faculties because its satellites are vulnerable to extreme space weather events, which are capable of unleashing highly energetic particles from astronomical sources, predominantly the Sun, and irreversibly damaging the electronic components of satellites. Globally expeditionary armed forces, like the U.S. Navy and the U.S. Air Force, are critically dependent on satellites: their crippling would cause sheer chaos. As a third example, the NRL and the AFSC collaborate through numerous projects to assess the space weather’s adverse effects on their satellites. An integrated Space Force can make for smoother preparedness for such calamitous conditions than collaborating space commands can.
The formation of the Space Force makes an adequate case for integration, a superior variant of collaboration. But illustrations from popular science fiction, where spacecraft fire laser weapons and collaterally destroy everything that comes in their way, tend to have misleading, negative connotations. Destructive space warfare is unlikely for several reasons: the absence of a strong motive, the existence of strong international treaties, its political and economic unfeasibility, and the certain annihilation of the near-Earth space due to the cascade of space debris, caused by blasts. More realistically, the Space Force will extrapolate the activities of the existing space commands, based on emerging demands and scenarios.
Washington is beginning to justify the U.S. Space Force’s existence via its ambition for full spectrum battle-space dominance – submarine, maritime, terrestrial, subterranean, aerial, cyber, and outer space; its large defence and space budgets, and its current threat perception. The competition between the three major powers – China, Russia and the U.S. – and the increased international footprint in space will contour the technological landscape of the next-generation global defence and space industry. This is why the U.S. is considering the formation of a Space Force necessary, and in fact, overdue.
Chaitanya Giri is Fellow, Space and Ocean Studies, Gateway House.
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