On Aug. 9, Vice President Mike Pence called for the establishment of a Space Force by 2020. US Defense Secretary James Mattis also came out in support of the idea to create a new unified command of the armed forces to focus on space operations. He said the Defense Department will address space as a new war-fighting domain. A report to Congress on creating a new combatant command is expected soon. The idea meets the provisions of the Joint Vision 2020, which states that the US should dominate and control the military use of space.
The 1967 Outer Space Treaty imposes no restrictions on conventional weapons. In 2015, the UN General Assembly adopted a Russia-submitted resolution, calling for no weapons placed in space, but Washington opposed it. The proposed Prevention of an Arms Race in Space (PAROS Treaty) put forward by Russia and China to ban conventional arms in the domain has been rejected by the United States. According to Politico, Vladimir Putin presented President Donald Trump with a proposal to mutually prohibit weapons in space during the Helsinki summit. In less than a month after the meeting, the US announced the need to create a new command, obviously preparing for a competition it plans to win.
On Aug.8, Missile Defense Agency director, Gen. Samuel Greaves, described in general lines what the new combatant command will look like in a speech at the Space and Missile Defense Symposium. He emphasized the need for creating a sensor layer with a regional detection and tracking capability, allowing to catch hypersonic missiles in the boost or burnout phases of flight.
Ground-based radars are limited by horizon. The only real way to reliably track hypersonic weapons is from space. Space-based sensors would guide ground-based ballistic missile defense (BMD) systems at the midcourse portion of the incoming missile’s trajectory. The damage control information would be used by last ditch systems. Probably, the Next-Generation Overhead Persistent Infrared (NG-OPIR) program will offer advanced capabilities.
The sensor layer will serve the BMD components of all branches to make the creation of combatant command a better option in comparison with the Air Force-headed architecture, which has existed since 1982. On the other hand, reforming the structure is more of a cosmetic change, it does not alter the substance – the US is adamant in its desire to weaponize the space and make it not only a part of global BMD but also a part of defense against hypersonic missiles Russia and China are close to arm their military with.
The US is lagging behind in hypersonic arms race. It pins hopes on space-based layer to enhance its capability to counter the threat. And it’s not only sensors. US officials know well that putting mini satellite-based jammers into space is also the most effective way to prevent hypersonic weapons from being guided with the desired accuracy.
According to Gen. Greaves, the US Missile Defense Agency (MDA) “is “not averse” to developing and fielding space-based missile defense interceptors, which are “a relatively easy technological challenge”. “We are developing options to pursue that capability if the nation decides that is what we should be doing,” Greaves said. “Congress has already written some language that would push us, direct us, guide us in that area,” he added, meaning the fiscal 2018 and 2019 National Defense Authorization Acts. In a nutshell, neither the US executive nor legislative power is averse to putting weapons in space to trigger an arms race in the new domain. The idea has strong backing. There’ll be no problem with congressional approval of the new branch of the military.
The Skripal poisoning was presented as a formal cause for introducing a package of anti-Russia punitive measures announced on Aug.8. It’s hard to believe the US really is much worried about the Skripal case. It has seen no ‘proof” because the UK is the source of potential evidence and if it had one, it would gladly produce it for the whole world to see. London has failed to do so.
Then what prompted the US to announce the recent “crushing sanctions” against Russia, which encompass aerospace-related technology? The first tranche, which targets US exports of sensitive national-security related goods, is to take effect on Aug.22. Everything related to satellites is a priority target for the package.
It’s logical to surmise that while lagging behind in hypersonic technology, the US wants to ensure its leadership in space-based elements of hypersonic missile defense. Other programs could boost the profits of airspace industry.
The reasons given as justification for introduction of new sanctions against Russia are always false. This time Washington is trying to reverse the trend and use the sanctions for becoming the leader in new weapons and technologies. It has tried it before. History teaches that that arms races are unwinnable. But the effort to put weapons into space will most certainly undermine the prospects for any progress in arms control.
Nobody’s security will be enhanced but the damage may be irreparable. Sanctions may delay the development of new technologies in Russia or China but they can’t prevent their emergence. It’s either talks on restricting space weaponization or putting weapons in space to trigger an arms race in an attempt to achieve global domination. The US appears to have made its choice. But any choice implies responsibility. There is still time to reverse the dangerous trend.