No laser bolts; no starships slaloming asteroids; no infantrymen trading high-energy fire. Just 350 demurely dressed individuals crowded into a few Alabama conference rooms. That’s what space conflict looks like. But don’t let the Schriever Wargame’s austere image fool you – the scenario acted out by the US and her allies last week, how an orbital war may unfold in 2029, is of agenda-topping importance. Just days earlier, Donald Trump had unveiled a new ‘Space Command’, the military body that will defend America’s interests in the final frontier.
“The dangers to our country constantly evolve and so must we,” the president said, presenting the group who will have operational control of nearly all American space assets. Previously, orbital operations were the reserve of Strategic Command – one of eleven so-called ‘combatant commands’ that divvy up the US’s military might by geography and function. But with nuclear war – the group’s primary responsibility – dominating its attention, the push for a separate space division has been growing.
It isn’t a new concept, a dedicated Space Command. One existed between 1985 and 2002, but 9/11 forced a shift in focus to homeland security, shunting the group to the periphery. Efforts to reinstate the command quickened under the Obama administration, however, and the unit’s official return was approved by Congress last year.
Where Trump departs from his predecessor is the desire for a ‘Space Force’, an entirely new military service – the first since the air force’s conception in 1947 – that would “organise, train and equip warriors” under Space Command’s authority. It is these men, women, and robots who would carry out the group’s four primary objectives: deterring space conflict, defending strategic orbital interests, assisting other combatant commands from above, and developing lethal warfighting options.
“We can no longer have the luxury of assuming space superiority,” warned the new unit’s commander, Gen. Jay Raymond. He remained coy on who may be encroaching on the US’s galactic dominance, but there’s little doubt in the minds of analysts: Russia and China. The latter’s orbital aptitude has long been known – Beijing’s successful test of an anti-satellite missile in 2007 was the first by any nation since 1985. Russia, for its part, has a spacefaring heritage as prodigious as America’s. While cooperation between the two has defined recent civilian space initiatives, Vladimir Putin warned recently that his embryonic arms race with Trump could soon take on an extraterrestrial dimension.
These mounting tensions must not be addressed with heightened deterrence alone, but with greater communication, experts argue. “The administration should resume the bilateral space security dialogues with Russia and China,” said Frank A. Rose, a security analyst at the Brookings Institution research group. “Given the current tensions in the bilateral relationships with both countries, having forums where the United States can deliver blunt messages is of particular importance”.
That these messages must be backed up with an operational force, few could dispute – but there is concern over what, in practice, Space Force’s function would be. Critics warn that too great an emphasis on offensive capabilities could come at the expense of asset defence, rendering US satellites and other orbital systems vulnerable to attack. Similarly, overuse of assault options might lead to burgeoning ‘space debris’ – material sheared off during an attack – which could threaten spacefaring safety for decades.
Perhaps the greatest worry, however, is that the force be squandered on some of America’s more fanciful cosmic ventures. Schemes to colonise the Moon, then Mars, have won influential support in political, military and technological circles. One such proposal, brain-child of former Republican Speaker Newt Gingrich, envisages lunar mining and manufacturing operations in the not-so-distant future. For a Space Force to be formed with a view to police such projects would be “absurd”, says Dr. Brian Weeden of the Secure World Foundation, a think-tank.
“The consequences are wasting time, effort, and resources on problems that might not matter for decades (if at all) instead of addressing the actual military space challenges of today. GPS is still relatively easy to jam, the military can’t reliably keep tabs on satellites and space debris, [and] US satellites are still very vulnerable to anti-satellite weapons (ASAT) attacks,” he added, speaking with InsideOver.
A bureaucratic quagmire will also have to be overcome if Trump’s Space Force is to take flight. Congressional approval isn’t guaranteed, nor is there unanimity between the House and Senate groups supportive of the proposals. Taking umbrage with its pugnacious title, Democrats would prefer the unit be named ‘Space Corps’, while the Republican-controlled Senate wants the creation of a fully-fledged service to be postponed for at least a year. Funding is also likely to be controversial, with opponents highlighting the military’s already exorbitant orbital spending allowance, which exceeds NASA’s $21.5bn annual budget.
But there’s little doubt that, sooner or later, space will become the next realm of human warfare. As states jostle for advantage in this arena, they will inevitably – despite the unfathomable expanse – come into conflict with one another. A skirmish 20,000 miles up is fraught with danger, but those pulling the strings will be focused on another fact: whoever prevails in the orbital fight will likely rule the terrestrial roost too.