Space Pirates and Orbital Pearl Harbor: Understanding the US Space Force

Critics mocked US Senator Ted Cruz when he suggested that space piracy is a concern. This led to funny memes that inserted various sci fi characters into the role of space pirates. But the international treaties regarding space law were based on maritime principles so Cruz’s statement was actually less outlandish than critics made it seem. The giggle factor in discusses outer space is the central problem with any concern of the Space Force. Talk of piracy or using camouflage on space uniforms seem silly when the public encounters them but less so when discussing the actual details and role of the space force.

What Is The US Space Force?

The Space Force is the first newly independent branch of the armed forces since the creation of the Air Force in 1947. Space Force was officially launched on December 20, 2019 and the arguments for and against an independent air force which were advanced back when it was launched are also being argued with regard to Space Force. The main argument against specialized branches of the military is that it concentrates resources on missions with laser like focus, overlooking other aspects. But these arguments discount the variety of specializations that each branch contains. For example, the F35 has variants for each branch of service because the navy operates planes on its carriers, the army trains in amphibious assaults, and the Air Force has security personnel on the ground.

The Space Force’s Role Going Forward

Space Force brings the same positives of specialization and negatives of redundancy. But since the Space Force exists it can now be a branch dedicated to space matters like protecting satellites, exploring the capabilities of US assets in low orbit and testing systems that can be deployed as additional missile defense. They will do so in ways that sometimes compete instead of complimenting the cyber security of the army, missile defenses of fleets, and the air force observations of potential launches against satellites, but the Space Force will still be helpful to US national security.

Space is categorized by extreme heat and cold, lack of oxygen, and low gravity which will benefit from a specialized trained force. The largest threat would be an orbital Pearl Harbor strike against satellites by potential adversaries. One writer described a fictional cyber war in 2030 where China launched preemptive hacking and malware attacks that penetrated satellites using their comparatively primitive microwave system. The counter striking US drones suddenly drop their missiles which harmlessly sink into the sea. China escalates by launches advances missiles at the bulky and exposed satellites. The advanced sensors on the F35 go blank and they can’t relay the needed information to the navy’s overlapping layers of missile defense and the ships themselves have to rely on the sun and the stars to navigate back to port before they are hit by advancing missile swarms.

Space Force: New Defenses Against Cyber Warfare And Missile Attacks

The Space Force would be tasked with developing new defenses against both cyber warfare and missile attacks to prevent that scenario. The software can be updated and stress tested for weaknesses. Space Force could physically harden the satellites leading to potential mocking headlines like “space armor against space pirates.” But it remains vital.

Moving to more proactive measures, the Space Force can design lasers, defensive ballistic missiles, or rail guns that can be based on the ground or in space. Each of these materials has its own benefits and draw backs. Intercepting missiles are the most common in America’s arsenal but as the Saudi’s found in Iran’s drone attack on their oil facilities, it is not perfect. There are some missiles designed to intercept in high orbit such as the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missiles. They could be transferred to the Space Force for interception training. Lasers provide unlimited ammunition (as long as they are powered) but are still experimental. This means that American forces won’t have to use expensive, million dollar, missiles to stop other missiles. Rail guns have been tested with launching rockets into space, but they could be used as interceptors for missiles. They can destroy enemy missiles using the energy of its impact, which like lasers, will mean ammunition becomes far less expensive. There are suggestions that they launch projectiles fast enough (near Mach 6) to launch off the moon or in space. The Space Force then will be researching new ways to use weapons to defend satellites.

So far the discussion over Space Force has focused on defense, but one reason why America is so worried about the placement of defensive Chinese weapons in the South China Sea is that defensive weapons also have offensive uses. The Space Force can develop weapons that not only defend against incoming missiles, but assist air, ground and sea forces. This sounds like a dangerous militarization of space. But unfortunately, other powers have already developed weapons with the potential to strike American satellites. Just like the Cold War that produced a rough parity, offensive-minded weapons can provide a deterring effect and bring peace.

Science fiction has presented many ideas over the years, but we are entering a new era where the Space Force makes laser defense, hardened satellites, and rail gun launched counter attacks real. It is imperative that governments understand and take this into account.