In 2018 before an assembly of United States Marines, President Donald Trump announced, to a surprised public and a shocked Pentagon brass, that he intended to create the United States Space Force. Initially, Trump’s pronouncement seemed to be another of his myriad off-the-cuff remarks designed to win over the specific crowd to which he was speaking. Before long, though, Trump’s seriousness revealed itself; he was going to have his Space Force. Space Force got a raw deal right from the start. During his tenure, Trump had some outlandish, and downright dangerous, ideas. He wanted to strong-arm Mexico into paying for his border wall, he attempted to ban immigrants from seven majority Muslim nations, and he counseled those suffering from COVID to begin receiving bleach injections. Many lumped Space Force in with those absurd Trumpian suggestions; such treatment was unnecessary. Nevertheless, Space Force plays a vital role in American military affairs and demonstrates a willingness, on the part of the United States Armed Forces, to adapt to the military challenges of the future.
IT STARTED IN THE DESERT
In the moonless, early hours of January 17th, 1991, a small American helicopter task force took off from an air base in western Saudi Arabia making for isolated Iraqi radar installations over 400 miles inside Iraqi airspace. Aided by advanced night flying equipment, a sophisticated terrain mapping program and the new Global Positioning System (GPS), the dozen choppers–9 Army Apaches and 3 guide Air Force Pave Lows–flew just 50 feet above the ground to avoid detection. Operation Desert Storm had begun.
Over the next weeks, a U.S.-led coalition of 39 countries conducted an enormous air campaign that crippled the military assets of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. The alliance flew more than 116,000 air sorties and unloaded 88,500 tons of bombs before ground forces swept in and expelled Hussein’s battered army from Kuwait, which it had invaded and occupied the previous year. The allied air operation, for the first time ever, employed space and stealth systems. Because of these new developments, the Gulf War has been called the first “space war.” All elements of the coalition’s invasion force had access to the new American Global Positioning System (GPS). This still incomplete satellite system allowed American forces, and their allies, to obtain precise geographic information in the featureless deserts of Iraq, which the Iraqi army lacked. The American GPS satellite array and communications network were fundamental to the success of Operations Desert Storm and Desert Sabre.
The United States emerged from the Gulf War as the world’s premier military and economic power; the Soviet Union broke apart six months later, accelerating this sense of unchallenged American might. The trajectory of Operation Desert Storm showed the level of unmatched technological sophistication that the U.S. military had accrued, largely due to its space-based capabilities, that made it unbeatable in traditional ‘gun for gun’ wars. Of course, the United States did not decimate Hussein’s army just because of fancy satellites. America had the third-largest military in the world at the time. However, the United States’ unprecedented capacity to turn its uncontested orbital supremacy into a military asset allowed it to maximize its already sizable military advantage with efficacy and precision. The United States suffered fewer than 200 casualties.
SCALING THE PRODUCT
The 1990s were marred by the genocide and barbarism in Bosnia, Rwanda and Kosovo. As the horrors of these conflicts were beamed back to the United States, public pressure ratcheted up on successive U.S. administrations to deploy the American military behemoth and harness the collective power of the United Nations to halt the slaughter. The U.S. intervened too late in Bosnia and not at all in Rwanda, but took action in the case of Kosovo. Operation Allied Force, a NATO air campaign to halt the ethnic cleansing in the country, provides a salient example of the United States deploying its superior military against tyranny with minimal loss; it suffered only two deaths in a non combat helicopter accident. Crucially, Operation Allied Force offered a preview of coming attractions; the U.S. dropped the first GPS-guided Joint Direct Attack Munitions (JDAMs) during the campaign.
The successful intervention in Kosovo reinforced the lesson of the Gulf War: the United States, circa the late 1990s, seemed to possess the unprecedented technological ability to quickly, painlessly, and efficiently defeat the armies of despotism. Such a campaign did not even require the U.S. to risk any of its soldiers. Many proclaimed a revolution in military affairs, claiming that as the U.S. military continued to integrate space based capabilities into its way of war, it would need fewer and fewer resources to carry out its operations. NATO saved the Kosovar Albanians from annihilation by precision bombardment alone. Ideally, the same could be accomplished whenever, and wherever, dictators threatened innocent people.
September 11th, 2001 tested the reality of this sentiment. The Bush Administration launched Operation Enduring Freedom (the invasion of Afghanistan) on Oct. 7, 2001. The assault targeted the Taliban regime sheltering Al-Qaeda terrorists. The invasion displayed the further integration of space-based capabilities into the American way of war. Most importantly, it showcased the full-force debut of the aforementioned JDAM.
During Desert Storm, the most sophisticated precision bombs of the era–laser guided munitions–would veer off course if they encountered a cloud or sand storm. So, the U.S. developed the JDAM. The JDAMs improved upon previous laser guided bombs because they rely on GPS guidance, making them devastatingly accurate. During the Gulf War, less than 10 percent of the bombs the U.S. dropped were precision guided; in the initial invasion of Afghanistan, nearly 60 percent of all ordnance was –either by satellites or by lasers. These high-tech armaments allowed the U.S. and their Afghan allies to quickly–and cheaply–overwhelm the Taliban. On May 1, 2003, Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld announced an end to major combat operations; the Taliban had been beaten and Al-Qaeda scattered.
That same day, President George W. Bush strutted across the deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln, and informed the assembled troops, under the infamous “Mission Accomplished” banner, that the “Battle of Iraq” had ended. Just over a month earlier, the United States, as phase two of its War on Terror, initiated Operation Iraqi Freedom (the invasion of Iraq); it was on a much larger scale than Operation Enduring Freedom. Instead of just a few thousand troops like in Afghanistan, the U.S. sent in 150,000. In 22 days, the American–led coalition defeated an army of 400,000 and toppled Saddam Hussein while suffering fewer than 200 combat deaths. The U.S. combined GPS guided bombs, all-weather sensors and real-time communication networks to monitor and attack Iraqi troops–no matter battlefield conditions. The U.S. continued to rely heavily on its ever-improving JDAMs. As part of Operation Iraqi Freedom, the coalition dropped 29,199 bombs, and of these 68 percent were precision guided and 22.4 percent of all bombs dropped were JDAMS. Despite its technological advantages in Iraq and Afghanistan, America bungled both wars; in brief, the U.S. attempted to conduct simultaneous nation-building campaigns that ended with ignominious withdrawals. As the United States military floundered in the Middle East unsuccessfully trying to resolve ancient religious and cultural disputes, its enemies were watching and learning.
THE BATTLE IS JOINED
China began conducting antisatellite tests in 2005. On January 11th, 2007, it launched a missile that obliterated an obsolete Chinese weather satellite in the first antisatellite test since the Cold War. The resulting satellite fragments endangered many nearby satellites and the International Space Station, and the Chinese were criticized heavily for their reckless behavior. However, the technological achievement could not be overlooked. The United States’ closest geopolitical competitor possessed the ability to target and destroy satellites constellations the U.S. military depended on to prosecute its wars. Since its 2007 test, China has developed a variety of antisatellite weapons, and now possesses electronic warfare capabilities that can disrupt satellite transmissions. These include laser weapons that can damage and disable satellites; cyberspace capabilities to take out the computers that control the U.S. satellite constellations; in-orbit satellite attack capabilities that can fire at nearby spacecraft; and ground-based missiles, like the one used in the 2007 test, to destroy satellites.
The Chinese ASAT test shocked the ossified Pentagon bureaucracy. Not only was America’s hegemony on the ground questioned, but China was now challenging American supremacy in space. The unexpected demonstration of China’s advanced antisatellite technology (ASAT) spawned a renewed interest in ASAT testing by the American government. Just a year later, the Bush administration responded by shooting down one of its own satellites. The next great space race was on.
THE PRESENT AND THE FUTURE
The evolutions in military technology throughout the past few decades culminated in President Trump’s creation of the U.S. Space Force in 2019. The public response was, to say the least, not encouraging: Steve Carell starred in a Netflix comedy show satirizing its creation. Trump himself provided memeable material; his Space Force-themed merchandise surrounded the new branch in a cloud of buffoonery. The memes, though amusing, obscure the seriousness of Space Force’s mission and preclude serious debate about the necessity of a new branch of the military.
Many concerns raised during the tumultuous months around Space Force’s inception are reasonable. Few deny the necessity of preserving American military assets in space from ASAT attack, but some argue another large Pentagon-level expenditure will not be most effective. Despite this criticism, the Biden Administration has made no public declarations about terminating the program. To dismantle an entire branch of the military a mere four years after its creation would make little sense.
Donald Trump did not just magically discover a vulnerability in the U.S. military and conjure up, for the first time ever, the idea of protecting American satellites. The military has a long space-faring tradition. On September 1st 1982, the United States Air Force established the Air Force Space Command in Colorado, which had, for over forty years, conducted various space operations, including Earth surveillance, weather forecasting, communications, managing ground based weapons and protecting American satellites. In 2019, its five year budget proposal totaled $44.3 billion; one might go so far as to call it a space force within the Air Force.
So why bother with an entirely new branch of the military when the Air Force Space Command already existed? A new branch of the military would require all the necessary regalia: a Chief of Staff, a command bureaucracy, new uniforms, a band, and maybe its own theme song. That would be a lot of money for little strategic gain. Concerns also abound about possible redundancies within the military, as different branches often might conduct the same operations independently. Wouldn’t a new military branch be more trouble than it’s worth?
Not exactly; space is special. Space-based technologies have infiltrated all elements of government operations, especially the military. Without access to space support apparatus and technologies, the U.S. Military would be rendered impotent in the command center and on the battlefield; a mere subdivision within the Air Force could not adequately protect America’s vast array of military satellites. Space Force, instead of fomenting disorganization, allows for a more cohesive American presence in space. This independent branch actually increases the interbranch coordination and reduces redundancy. The Space Force will act as a sort of space-based IT program whose work reaches into all corners of the Pentagon. The mission of protecting American satellites is essential for all other branches of the military.
In recent years, the Department of Defense, in conjunction with Space Force, has advocated the idea of satellite resiliency. Satellite resiliency refers to the creation of many smaller satellites positioned at different Earth orbits–Low Earth Orbit, Medium Earth Orbit, Geosynchronous Orbit and Highly Elliptical Orbit. This diversity of satellites would allow the U.S. military’s space-based capabilities to remain online in the face of an orbital attack–from China, Russia or another hostile nation. Right now, America relies on a small number of impractical and undefended satellites; if these are hit by any kind of ASAT attack, the U.S. would be in danger of losing access to all of its space systems. The Space Force Guardians promise to upgrade the American satellite installations; the first resilient constellation will be operational by 2027.
They must move quickly. General B. Chance Saltzman, the U.S. chief of space operations at Space Force, argues the war in Ukraine has reinforced how integral space is to great power wars. The conflict has featured numerous displays of Russian antisatellite technology. Geopolitically, Russia pales in comparison to China, especially considering how its military has underperformed in Ukraine. Nevertheless, as an allegedly advanced military with significant antisatellite capabilities, Russia and its ongoing efforts in Ukraine offer a glimpse of what a large scale war with China might look like. Russia’s “special military operation” has included cyber attacks and instances of jamming against satellite communication arrays. The Russian use of antisatellite weapons illustrates the extent to which space is akin to any other part of the battlefield. Indeed, the Armed Forces of Ukraine greatly depend upon the satellite constellations provided by the West–both commercial and military. Understandably, the U.S. and its partners are cagey when describing exactly how Ukraine has incorporated allied space systems into its war effort. Nonetheless, Space Force has provided some broad strokes.Western satellites allow Ukraine to use modern precision munitions in carefully targeted strikes against Russian positions. Additionally, satellites endow Ukrainian forces with the ability to track Russian troop movements. These all-important satellites do not belong exclusively to Space Force, nor the U.S. Government. In fact, many are commercial or privately-owned satellites.
In the aftermath of Putin’s invasion, Elon Musk, through SpaceX, began providing Ukraine with 20,000 Starlink internet terminals–a low-orbit satellite constellation designed to supply high-speed internet to remote locations that cannot be accessed by traditional fiber optic cables. This has enabled the Ukrainian military to communicate freely and quickly without relying on its obsolete internet infrastructure. SpaceX has recently taken steps to curtail Ukraine’s ability to leverage Starlink tech for offensive purposes, but Starlink’s importance must not be overlooked. Space has become a part of modern warfare.
It is not hard to imagine where future threats might arise and where vulnerabilities currently reside. Information warfare and cyberattacks are common. Energy grids are targeted by both military force and domestic terrorism. There’s great danger in expecting the next war to resemble the preceding one. If a modern general organized his infantry into a Greek phalanx, drone strikes would pulverize the unlucky foot soldiers. New technologies constantly roll off the assembly line–designed to make killing cheaper and easier. Space Force is a good idea into which America should continue to pour investment. Its mission is essential, timely and a necessary addition to the U.S. defense strategy arsenal. Consumers are familiar with concepts like cyber security when it comes to their banking or personal data; the same must hold for our interests in space. Don’t let its name fool you. “Space Force” conjures up images of pilots in jumpsuits firing lasers from their space fighters, or performing fancy docking maneuvers while in orbit around one of Saturn’s moons. Though it may be that someday, it is not yet. Space Force, despite not looking anything like Star Trek’s Starfleet, protects crucial American interests in space and keeps Americans safe on the ground.