On August 29th, 2019, President Trump gave a short speech on the South Lawn of the White House, establishing the US Space Command. This video clip was one reaction to the news. The reactions to this news are conflated with the intent of President Trump to create a sixth branch of the US military services, to be called the U.S. Space Force.
This is not that.
But it is a stepping stone on the way to the Space Force, even though it is really the resurrection of a very old stepping stone. The US Space Command was originally established in 1985.
It is easy to consider two major scenarios as problems. One is the militarization of space. President Trump appears to have no problem with this idea, which has been generally rejected at official and diplomatic levels. The idea of militarizing space is often portrayed as repugnant excess of human will, making the Final Frontier no longer a safe place for all people, free of political bounds.
It also calls to mind everything from images of killer satellites to scenes of combat in space, a la Star Wars and just about every other saga set in space.
However, this is the place where the talk of the militarization of space is both more and substantially less than the images we are quietly encouraged to accept.
How militarization is more of an issue.
Militarization of space is nothing new. Its start could be assessed by many American political figures as having started in 1957, with the launch of Sputnik I by the USSR. The first thing this launch showed many was that the Soviet Union was capable of launching missiles against targets anywhere in the world, since they succeeded in launching one into space in a high orbit. (The fact that the Soviets themselves displayed no ill-will in their work was of course, of no consequence to the West, still reeling from McCarthyism and abject fear of the spread of Communism). But when the United States worked out the kinks in their own rocket programs and started orbiting satellites, one of the first uses of these was reconnaissance. Satellites in space were considered to be in “neutral” territory, even if they passed over the airspace of a nation deemed hostile, and so the quiet assent on all sides was not to disturb the satellites, but both sides certainly became interested in tracking them, so as to not have any top-secret pet projects out in the open for an adversary to photograph or record.
A further, and passive advance into the militarization of space was simply the development of highly accurate ICBMs, like the MX Peacekeeper, whose incoming test projectiles appear on the banner photo to this newspiece. Those streaks of light came down from the sky as these projectiles re-entered the atmosphere.
Talk and prospective imagery of “killer satellites” has been on the boards since at least 1961. The notion here was to send such a device into an orbit that brought it within kill range of its target. The kilsat would detonate – perhaps even using nuclear charges, but in tests only conventional explosives were used – thereby sending shrapnel which would pulverize the target. Such systems were tested successfully by both sides in the Cold War.
It can certainly be seen that an express effort to create a Space Force (the next step) would create more such weapons, as well as the possibility of offensive orbiting nuclear weapons platforms, and manned reconnaisance stations observing any misbehaving nations on Earth.
However, our present technology here runs into a wall, which is why the Space Command is also far less than its name, or that of the Space Force, tries to be.
How militarization is less of an issue.
The Boeing X-37B space planes are probably about the pinnacle in orbiting technology today. One is presently in orbit and has been flying over the Earth for over 720 days at the time of this writing. This is what the space plane looked like after spending 718 days in orbit some years ago.
The Air Force uses this spacecraft for something, but its payloads and projects have always been very closely guarded secrets. We know of no other nation currently operating such craft, and it is not likely anyone does or it would be known. This points at one of the operational weaknesses of any militarized space force: that any orbiting spacecraft can be detected on the ground, and further, said craft usually has an orbit that carries it over adversaries’ territory, making it possible to track from ground-based sources.
In other words, anything placed in orbit is really almost impossible to keep a secret. Science fiction shows us spacecraft “in orbit” but actually this is not true, as their technology enables them to not have to accede to the laws of orbital dynamics and ballistics. The second weakness is much like the first: anything in orbit has to move at both a required high rate of speed and trajectory to stay in orbit. It is not possible for orbiting spacecraft to change orbits drastically. To put it simply, freedom of movement in space is sharply limited by the the physics that must be obeyed for an object to stay in orbit.
This means that if you are in orbit and headed over the territory of an unfriendly nation, there is no way you can change your heading and just go somewhere else. At present we are limited to the use of spacecraft that spend most of their time not using their engines to go anywhere. They are in free fall – coasting, albeit at very high speeds, just enough to keep missing the surface of the Earth as they try to fall back to the ground. Changing your direction can only be done gradually, by virtue of slight changes in orbit. While it is possible to create geostationary orbits where a satellite might always be parked over its home country, the same limitation applies. It cannot move from that position or it will risk the decay of its orbit, and it cannot just move to a new place like we can on the earth’s surface.
For now, the only spacecraft capable of completely independent flight in space without regards for orbital dynamics only exist in the movies.
For this reason more than any other, the militarization of space seems to be primarily in the reconnaisance field, or that of an orbiting weapons platform designed to strike ground targets. It is very unlikely that we would see actual combat situations in space with our present technology.
Oddly enough, there was one movie that did almost correctly portray this, the old James Bond film Moonraker, which clumsily did try to portray some of the limitations – and possible utility – of an orbiting space offensive platform. Its killer satellite was capable of striking terran targets, but it could not effectively evade attack in space.
This not to say that this cannot ever happen. It certainly can. Once space drives are developed that do not require a spacecraft to be in orbit, then freedom of steerage becomes exactly like we see in the movies. However, unless someone is hiding a very big secret, we have no evidence of such propulsion systems existing.
President Trump’s announcement and wish for a Space Force, then is most likely for something like a space-based specialization of already existing technologies such as antisatellite missiles fired from the ground or from fighter planes at high altitudes. It is likely to concern itself with the most excellent levels of reconnaisance yet, and it is safe to say we will probably see some significant increase in the number of manned orbital platforms in years to come. And indeed, military.com proposes the Space Force to be a subsidiary unit operating under the US Air Force:
Vice President Mike Pence and the Department of Defense released more details about the planned force on Aug. 9, 2018, citing plans to create a separate combatant command, U.S. Space Command, in addition to an independent service overseen by a civilian secretary, all by 2020.
The Department of Defense forwarded a Space Force proposal to Congress, on March 1, 2019, calling for a service that would fall under the Air Force in the same way the Marine Corps falls under the Department of the Navy. The proposal also included the designation of a new position: undersecretary of the Air Force for space, a civilian position that would answer to the secretary of the Air Force and oversee U.S. Space Force. Officials estimated the creation of a new service would cost $2 billion over five years, and require 15,000 personnel.
This is fairly small considering the recent US $700-plus billion allocated for defense spending each year for the last few years.
However, President Trump is loved by many in his country for loving the military, in contrast to the perception of President Obama as one who despised his own military (though he had no qualms sending them hither and yon). In terms of optics, the President’s announcement is Good National Leader stuff. In terms of overall effectiveness, it is true that perhaps a Space Command and / or a Space Force will be able to more effectively specialize in what is needed for effective defense in this theatre of conflict.
But Star Wars, this is not. It would seem that the only way to see great forces squaring off for battle in the stars remains a trip to your local movie theatre.
Maybe that is a very good thing.