President Donald Trump suggested creating a new military branch dedicated to space warfare during a speech to military service members in California on Tuesday, March 14.
Though the president’s idea is a novelty in the discourse at the top level of American politics, top armed forced experts have long warned that space is a military frontier. Intelligence reports of Russia and China developing lasers that could blast satellites out of space raised concerns among military top brass and in Congress that foreign adversaries are pursuing space technology to challenge the United States.
“They’ve been building weapons, testing weapons, building weapons to operate from the earth in space, jamming weapons, laser weapons, and they have not kept it secret,” Gen. John Hyten, the head of US Strategic Command, said in December last year, according to CNN.
“They’re building those capabilities to challenge the United States of America, to challenge our allies, and to change the balance of power in the world,” Hyten added. “We cannot allow that to happen.”
Trump revealed his intention to create the new military branch during his first visit to California on Tuesday. The president gave a speech to a crowd of service members at Marine Corps Air Station Miramar.
“My new national strategy for space recognizes that space is a war-fighting domain, just like the land, air, and sea,” the president said. “We may even have a Space Force.”
“I said, ‘Maybe we need a new force. We’ll call it the Space Force,'” he added. “And I was not really serious. And then I said, ‘What a great idea. Maybe we’ll have to do that. That could happen. That could be the big breaking story.'”
Russia and China discovered the game-changing potential of satellites as war tools during the 1991 Gulf War, when the United States delivered a crushing blow using surveillance gathered from satellites. Since then, according to Hyten, they have looked for ways to deny the United States the space advantage in a potential conflict.
But the satellites’ crucial mission is missile defense.
“Every missile that comes off the planet is seen first by one of our overhead missile warning capabilities,” Hyten said, explaining that the satellites are “not easy to defend.”
Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Alabama) amplified Hyten’s concerns.
“Most folks aren’t thinking about the fact that our first way of detecting a launch by North Korea, so that we can turn our radars to start tracking it and start aiming our interceptors to be able to get it in time, is a satellite up there waiting for that heat signature,” Rogers told CNN. “We can not let that satellite be dazzled for 10 or 15 minutes, it would be too late.”
Some complexity is involved when it comes to conflict in space, mainly because there are no set rules of engagement.
“It’s probably time as a country that we start to talk about this,” said Heather Wilson, the secretary of the Air Force, adding that in case of an attack on a U.S. satellite, the military needs a policy in place that “would consider that to be a hostile act.”
The Air Force already has a Space Command, but satellite operators have long been considered technical support staff to war commanders. Going forward, the operators will take on an increasingly central role, according to Maj. Gen. Joseph Guastella Jr., director of integrated air, space, cyberspace and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance operations at Air Force Space Command.
Compared to fighter pilots who train in immersive battle environment simulators, training systems for satellite operators were designed to emulate a benign environment. To address the gap, the Air Force has requested funds in the 2018 and 2019 budgets for systems that simulate a contested space environment, according to Space.com.
“We are at the warfighter table. We are not in the cheap seats anymore,” Guastella said at a Mitchell Institute breakfast meeting on Capitol Hill last week. “We are in a cultural shift to a warfighting mentality.”
Maintaining space technology that dominates adversaries can serve as a deterrent similar to America’s nuclear posture, according to Navy Vice Adm. Charles A. Richard.
“The best way to prevent war is to be prepared for war, and we’re going to make sure that everyone knows we’re going to be prepared to fight and win wars in all domains, to include space,” Richard said last March, according to National Defense magazine.
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