Space Force Takes One Step Forward, Two Back . . . Again

By | 2019-02-25T18:38:43-07:00 February 25th, 2019|
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In the October 15, 2018 edition of Strategika I wrote: “Three cheers for President Trump’s decision to add a Space Force to the Navy, Marines, Army, Air Force, and Coast Guard.” I was enthusiastic because, “though the logic of war and technology has long counseled establishing a U.S Space Force, the logic of military bureaucracy has forestalled it. . . .For human beings to turn any technology’s potential to military effect, those who really want to do it must be in a position to make it happen . . .  that is why establishing the U.S Space Force is no mere rewiring of bureaucratic diagrams.”

But the directive that formally establishes that force, which Trump signed last Tuesday in response to bureaucratic and corporate resistance, is nothing more than a dysfunctional rewiring.

Specifically: though dominance of orbital space has become ever more vital to all other military functions, as well as for protection of our satellites and for defense against ballistic missiles, U.S. space policy has been in the hands of the Air Force, which has regarded what happens in space as subordinate to its traditional missions and—to say the least—has not made a priority of either satellite warfare or missile defense.

Establishing the U.S. Space Force was supposed to change all that. It won’t. Trump’s words notwithstanding, the directive he signed reaffirms the Air Force’s control over orbital space matters.

At the February 19 signing ceremony, Trump said, “With today’s action, we will ensure that our people are secure, our interests are protected, and our power continues to be unmatched.  There will be nobody that can come close to matching us.  It won’t be close.”

In reality, the directive simply places the Space Force under an undersecretary of the Air Force and elevates the chief of the Air Force’s space command to membership on the Joint Chief of Staff with a new title. There are no new goals or programs, as they would disrupt the Pentagon’s existing budget priorities and meddle with defense contractors’ investment in current programs. As Trump respected their priorities and walked back his original intention, he emptied his words of meaning.

The Battlefield Above
It is impossible to imagine any major war’s operations henceforth without competitive destruction of satellites. Russia and especially China have programs that aim not just at using orbital space, but at ensuring their own use of it and denying it to others. Their capacities for satellite destruction are greater than ours. For a variety of tactical reasons, their needs for satellite protection are not as great as ours.

Protecting our satellites is a challenge we have not begun to address. While hardening satellites may protect them against the necessarily weak flux from ground-based lasers, no satellite can be protected against a megawatt laser firing through unobstructed space, or against kinetic kill vehicles. Nor can satellites be safeguarded by escorts. Hence, protecting satellites requires preventing threats to them from reaching space in the first place. That is what space control means. Our lack of capacity for space control, the fact that we are not seeking it even as China and Russia reach for it, makes it impossible to design serious military operations against them.

Because orbital space is the highway for ballistic missiles and because controlling orbital space was supposed to have been the U.S. Space Force’s reason for being, it might have become the advocate for missile defense within the government. After all, efficient operation of our minimal surface-based missile defenses requires orbit-based fire control systems. Anything like preclusive defense against missiles requires satellites, whether kinetic or laser, that can control an enemy’s access to space. We don’t have such things, and are not about to get them.

Vulnerable As Ever
Trump’s introductory words last month notwithstanding, the latest missile defense boondoggle commits America to zero defense against “large and technically sophisticated Russian and Chinese intercontinental ballistic missile threats to the U.S. homeland.” The program simply sticks with programs that are making America vulnerable even to North Korea. The Space Force might have been expected to remove missile defense from the reach of the Air Force, which has long stood in its way.

But the document that Trump signed on February 19 places the Air Force more firmly in a bureaucratic blocking position than ever. Because the Air Force’s corporate interest opposes what conflicts with its traditional activities, our defense programs will continue on autopilot. Our satellites and America itself will be as vulnerable as they have ever been, words notwithstanding.

After meeting last year with Kim Jong-un, Trump exulted that he had secured an agreement to denuclearize North Korea. In his State of the Union this month, he changed the subject. Stopping an imminent war had been his achievement. Prior to his scheduled meeting with Kim for the second time in Vietnam this week, Trump switched goal posts again: ”We hope we’re going to be very much equally as successful . . . We just don’t want testing.”

Words are flexible. Reality, not so much.

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Photo Credit: Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images

About the Author:

Angelo Codevilla
Angelo M. Codevilla is a senior fellow of the Claremont Institute, professor emeritus of international relations at Boston University and the author of To Make And Keep Peace (Hoover Institution Press, 2014).