President Donald Trump has signed an executive order directing the Defense Department to create a Space Force that will constitute a sixth independent branch of the US armed forces. The goal is to ensure American supremacy in space, outstripping other world powers, such as Russia and China. According to him, a mere US presence is not enough. “We must have American dominance in space,” the president emphasized. "We don't want China and Russia and other countries leading us. We've always led,” he added. Once the president’s order has been carried out, the Air Force would likely turn over its space duties to the new branch.
The idea has substantial backing. It is fairly popular in Congress. A fully-fledged force, complete with a new, four-star general position, new uniforms, and a budget requires congressional action. Congress approves funds and can mandate specific requirements. Rep. Mike Roger (R-Ala.), chairman of the House Armed Services Strategic Forces Subcommittee, rushed to back the president on the issue.
The Air Force is not pleased by the policy, and some military leaders do not support it. Defense Secretary James Mattis opposed it last year. Is he in the loop today? There will be a lot of problems with funds, allocating responsibilities, and reorganizing the other services, each of which has its own component that already deals with space missions. Will a position of space secretary be created? Will the top commander of the new force become a member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff? There will be many questions to answer and problems to tackle.
But in any event, the executive order has been signed, launching the process of creating a new military branch, all of which is yet more evidence that the US is looking aggressively at its future in space and viewing it as a potential war-fighting domain.
The United States already has a very substantial presence there, including unclassified and classified satellites and space planes, such as the classified X-37B. In 2008, it demonstrated its capability to attack space objects by firing sea-based missiles. Back then, the US Navy successfully shot down a nonfunctional spy satellite traveling in space at more than 17,000 mph and 150 nautical miles above the earth over the Pacific Ocean. A cruiser based in Pearl Harbor hit it using a Standard Missile-3.
In 2010, the Air Force launched its first X-37B space plane. Since then, it has been sent up regularly on hush-hush missions lasting for many months. The Dream Chaser reusable space planes will add to this picture. The ballistic missile defense (BMD) system is shifting to air- and space-based systems. And there are other space-based capabilities we don't know about as yet. Putting weapons into space to achieve global supremacy is high on the US agenda.
According to publicly accessible sources, the Air Force spends around $15 billion every year on space research and activities. The space-operations budget of the classified National Reconnaissance Office is an estimated $10 billion, bringing this total to at least $25 billion.
For many years now outer space has been used as an operational domain for military spacecraft, such as imaging and communications satellites. As yet, however, no weapons have been stationed in space. The US, Russia, China, and other space-faring nations are signatories to the Outer Space Treaty (OST) of 1967, an arms-control deal reached at the height of the Cold War. Recognized by 107 nations (as of April 2018), the OST bars countries from stationing nuclear weapons or weapons of mass destruction anywhere in outer space, including in orbit around Earth. No military bases, tests of any kind, including conventional weapons, or exercises are allowed, but the treaty doesn't specifically ban the use of conventional weapons in open space or on space stations.
The first-ever draft Treaty on the Prevention of the Placement of Weapons in Outer Space, the Threat or Use of Force against Outer Space Objects (PPWT) was prepared by Russia and introduced to the UN in 2008 with China’s backing. The document was rejected with the US leading the opposition. The Americans claimed the paper did not address the security concerns over space assets. In December 2014, the UN General Assembly adopted a Russian resolution, “No First Placement of Weapons in Outer Space”. America, along with Ukraine and Georgia, voted against it. Moscow has expressed its readiness to discuss the issues related to the prevention of space militarization in its role as a participant in the EU-initiated activities on a draft International Code of Conduct for Outer Space. Washington has never displayed any interest.
Through resolutions and discussions within the United Nations, a general agreement has evolved that an arms race in outer space should be prevented. However, due to the structure of the international legal system and the objection of a small number of states, like the US for example, a treaty has not yet been negotiated that would comprehensively prevent the deployment of space-based weapons. The United States argues that an arms race in outer space does not exist and it is therefore unnecessary to take action to prevent it. It is true that such a race may not exist as yet, but the US appears to be very much willing to start one.
Washington believes that space accords would be too difficult to verify. But it has never come up with any initiative of its own to curb a space arms race. The idea to put weapons in space has been floated by the current administration. In his March 1 address to parliament, Russian President Putin unveiled some details about Russia’s new weapons. The domination of space could change the balance of forces in the US favor.
Creating a Space Force would most certainly prompt other nations to respond, which would in turn trigger a destabilizing form of competition. The weaponization of space will undermine international security and disrupt whatever is left of the eroding arms-control regime.
Hopefully this issue will be on the agenda of the Trump-Putin summit slated for July 15 in Vienna, Austria. A dialog on curbing the militarization of space might be a more efficient way to safeguard US national security than by challenging Russia in space. The problems related to arms control and non-proliferation have received very little attention recently, having been eclipsed by other issues impacting the US-Russia relationship. This top-level meeting is a chance to turn the tide.