US military space force: what do we know so far?

Talal Husseini 29 March 2019 (Last Updated January 29th, 2020 12:06)

The Department of Defence’s (DoDs) five-year plan to create a US military space force has brought a series of questions over the US’s role, jurisdiction and defence capabilities in space. What do we know about the space force so far?

US military space force: what do we know so far?
The US DoDs five-year plan to create a US military space force raises questions over the US’s role and capabilities in space. What do we know so far? Credit: Shutterstock.com

The US military space force sounds like something out of a science fiction film. Yet, in as little as five years’ time, it could be established as the sixth and newest branch of the US Armed Forces. The 2020 defence budget announced by President Donald Trump allocates $500m annually for the space force, which includes an initial $72m for the US military space force headquarters and a required staff of 15,000 employees. It will initially be included under the remit of the US Air Force. US Air Force Space Command (AFSP) head General John F Raymond has been nominated to lead the new space force.

In the 2020 budget documents released on 11 March 2019, the White House said: “Central to achieving this new acquisition paradigm is the Space Development Agency, which is being established in 2019 under existing authorities to foster innovation by leveraging the thriving domestic commercial space sector.”

The budget also requests $1.7bn for four evolved expendable launch vehicles, Global Positioning System III and associated projects worth $1.8bn, and a $1.6bn space-based overhead persistent infrared system.

With lots of money being thrown in and only five years to plan for its establishment, what do we know so far about what the US space force is and what it will do?

First off, the space force won’t fight aliens

Let’s start with the bad news. The Pentagon has officially confirmed that the US space force will not fight against aliens.

Asked by a reporter on 1 March as to whether the space force was concerned with threats posed by ‘extra-terrestrial intelligence’, the spokesperson said ‘no’ –  killing the dreams of all space and sci-fi fans across the world with one word.

So what will the US space force do?

So, what then is the main function of the space force? Well, the official overview of the US military space force said: “The space force will develop forces for: space situational awareness; satellite operations and global, integrated, command and control of military space forces; global and theatre military space operations to enable joint campaigns (to include missile warning); space support to land, air, naval, and cyber forces; spacelift and space range operations; space-based nuclear detonation detection; and prompt and sustained offensive and defensive space operations to achieve space superiority.”

While it doesn’t sound quite as exciting as a Star Trek mission, the list certainly covers a lot of tasks that will become vital as the commercial and military use of space increases.

What are the space threats?

Of course space threats don’t come from space. They come from other nations. Space is just another domain in which to conduct national defence – and an important one at that.

Take the recent example of India successfully launching an anti-satellite weapon on 27 March. Prime Minister Narendra Modi said that Indian military scientists had successfully destroyed a low-Earth orbit satellite in a display of India’s ‘space power’, certainly a nod to the space powers of the US, Russia and China.

It seems it is not just the US’s traditional rivals such Russia and China who are developing interstellar defence capabilities. However, these two are the top concern for the US Government.

Speaking to reporters in January, a spokesperson for the Trump Administration said: “With respect to relations with Russia and China, the president relies on having good relations with the leaders of those countries.

“Our defence capabilities are purely defensive. The United States has been very transparent in the development of its missile defence capabilities, about what they are postured to defend against and our missile defence capabilities are primarily postured to stay ahead of rogue state threats.”

The US as the space police

In response to the news that India had destroyed a space satellite using anti-satellite technology, the US’s acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan was quick to reaffirm the ‘rules’ of conduct in space.

“We all live in space. Let’s not make it a mess,” he told reporters.

“Space should be a place where we can conduct business; space should be a place where people have freedom to operate. We cannot make it unstable; we cannot create a debris problem that ASAT tests create. So, thoughtfulness goes a long way.

“Not having rules and engagement is worrisome, so how people test and develop technology is important, but how we share this critical domain — I would expect anyone who tests does not put at risk anyone else’s assets. There are certain basic principles.”

The initial role of the US military space force could be to act as a kind of space police, using its authority to tell other states what they can and cannot do in space, and reinforcing US rules on space with its military might. How that will go down with Russia and China remains to be seen, of course.

However, one person that remains sceptical over the necessity of a US space force is the Project on Government Oversight military analyst Dan Grazier. He told Space News: “History shows that the creation separate military service will add bureaucratic barriers and largely serve its own ends, making it more difficult for the other branches to get the support they need to achieve their missions on Earth.”

How will the US space force train?

While the main remit of training and equipment for the US space force currently falls under the AFSP, defence firms in the industry are already looking at how they can support an independent space force.

Candian firm CAE already works with the US Army Space and Missile Defence Command to provide training and simulation space-based systems, while Kratos is also looking at space force training opportunities, which will be different to existing military methods.

Kratos senior vice-president for satcom products and federal satellite solutions Frank Backes said “Current space training systems are space-program focused. You would have a training system that is focused on GPS or remote sensing satellites or milsatcom, as an example, and the current training environment is sufficient to support introductory training.

“Space force training kind of opens the aperture to include anomalies of those satellites and threat training to understand how adversaries may attack a particular satellite capability.”

The DoD is also asking the industry for US space force uniform early design concepts.