If a space war between the United States and a near-peer rival, like China or Russia, were to break out tomorrow, the United States likely would lose.
Right now, America’s military depends entirely on satellites in Earth’s orbit—and those satellites are highly vulnerable to attack and disruption by enemy forces. What’s more, our rivals—predominantly China, Russia, North Korea, and Iran—are tailoring their military strategies to take this weakness into account.
In 2000, Donald Rumsfeld headed the Commission to Assess United States National Security, Space Management, and Organization. Rumsfeld’s commission concluded that the United States was woefully unprepared to defend its critical space architecture, despite relying so heavily on it. Rumsfeld later reported to Congress that America’s enemies have put us “on notice. But, we have not noticed.”
Not only do these words remain true today, but the situation is even bleaker than it was 17 years ago.
Today, the Chinese have an integrated strategy for developing space both for their strategic military purposes and for economic reasons. Whether it be in the military or economic realms, Chinese strategy relies upon the object of displacing the United States as the world’s dominant space power.
The Russians continue to expand upon the space architecture they inherited from the defunct Soviet Union, and have become the “Walmart” of space programs, according to space policy expert, James Clay Moltz. Today, Moltz says, Russia provides “readily available, highly functional, and generally less expensive services than any other supplier [of space technology].” That means customers for Russia’s RD-180 rocket engines are not only Moscow’s traditional allies but the United States Air Force as well!
This development wouldn’t be much of a problem, save for the fact that the United States and its allies insist on tweaking the vulnerable Russian President Vladimir Putin at every turn, thereby morphing Russia into an adversary and diminishing the prospect that it could be a partner. So, America’s insistence on “standing up” to the Russians while also relying on their rocket engines to place our most important military satellites in orbit is asinine.
This has already become a major point of contention between the Russians and Americans: shortly after the West imposed sanctions on Moscow for its illegal annexation of Crimea in 2014, the Russians threatened to prevent the U.S. Air Force from gaining access to the RD-180 engines (to say nothing of the fact that America’s civilian space program relies exclusively on Russia to send astronauts in orbit). Even though Congress has already insisted the Air Force stop purchasing the RD-180 engines, it is proving far more difficult to completely abandon this equipment, due to their reliability and relatively low cost.
Meanwhile, the North Koreans and Iranians persist in developing their nuclear arsenals, despite the cavalcade of threats from the rest of the world. Of course, the nuclear weapons are themselves a threat to the United States, but so too are the North Korean and Iranian space programs. Under the imprimatur of their space programs, both countries could deploy either nuclear devices or electromagnetic pulse (EMP) weapons in orbit. Such weapons could be used to destroy America’s critical space architecture, rendering America’s military deaf, dumb, and blind. An EMP device could also be detonated above the United States, knocking out North America’s power grid, and sending the United States (as well as Canada and Mexico) back to a 19th-century level of development.
Why Space Matters Now More Than Ever
American interests in space are not simply about maintaining satellite operations during a crisis, or ensuring that space remains a domain from which to support American forces operating on land, at sea, or in the air. For the United States to be well-defended in the 21st century, the military must also use space to project power into those other terrestrial domains.
Our mission in space is both offensive and defensive. Under the Defense Department’s current configuration of four military branches (Army, Navy, Marines, Air Force), this is simply an impossibility. Space is the linchpin of any military strategy today, so why has it been treated by the military as an ancillary concern?
Space has mostly been under the purview of the Air Force. Despite claims to the contrary, the Air Force has not properly resourced its space operations. In fact, in recent years the “Air Force has raided funds from the Space Command to cover cost-overruns for other projects,” according to U.S. Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Ala.) and Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.), two of the loudest proponents of an independent American space force in Congress today. While the Air Force did request a budget increase for its space operations for the 2018 fiscal year, the total amount allocated to Space Command is a paltry $7.7 billion (compare that to the $1 trillion cost of the overpriced F-35 program over the last decade).
What would have been more cost-effective: spending $1 trillion on a program that is the definition of a boondoggle, or spending that money on space weapons and better-defended satellites?
The Air Force is institutionally incapable of fully resourcing space operations, and will always view space as a secondary function to their primary mission of air dominance.
Further, congressional supporters of an independent space corps are being met with fierce resistance from the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the secretary of defense himself. The Pentagon’s bureaucracy argues that the creation of a new military branch would be wasteful and weaken readiness. How could this be? There may be some proverbial hiccups after the creation of an independent space corps, but none would be as bad as the current situation of under-sourcing military space operations; allowing antedated policies to dominate the military space program, while disfavoring innovative thinking, as it might upset the hallowed military bureaucracy. These arguments ring hollow and reek of turf-protecting by the four military branches, plain-and-simple.
Remember Pearl Harbor!
This is not the first time innovation has met resistance in the building of America’s military might.
At the dawn of the nuclear age, America’s airpower rested in the hands of the Army. Many argued that the creation of an independent, fully funded Air Force was the most efficient way to deal with the new types of threats that the United States faced from the air. Regardless how seriously the Army may have taken airpower, the argument went, the Army never would have given the Air Corps the resources necessary to exert the kind of airpower essential for America’s defense in the Cold War.
Separating the Air Force from the Army enhanced America’s air defenses immeasurably during the Cold War and beyond. We had an entire branch whose mission was to dominate the skies, which allowed for the Army to focus on land power; the Navy to focus on sea control; the Marines to focus on rapidly deploying from ships offshore and obliterating an enemy on land. Plus, the Air Force allowed for the creation of the nuclear triad, which ensured that the Soviets could never destroy our nuclear deterrent in the outbreak of war.
As space has become the integral factor in U.S. military operations, it’s clear America needs an independent space force. Such a force would have its own budget and an institutional culture that values space dominance, as opposed to relegating our space defense to the budgetary whims of the Air Force and its primary mission of ensuring air dominance.
Without fundamental change at the Pentagon, the United States is susceptible to a debilitating space-based Pearl Harbor. Congress should compel the Pentagon to create an independent space force before such an attack occurs. Russia and China already have their own independent space forces (the Aerospace Defence Force for Russia and the People’s Liberation Army Rocket Force for China). These two rivals recognize the importance of space and its role in national defense. When will the Pentagon?
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