The role of the U.S. Space Force in the future of warfare in outer space

Jessica West Featured

By Jessica West

Published in The Ploughshares Monitor Volume 41 Issue 1 Spring 2020

The United States Space Force is taking shape. A uniform of camouflage fatigues and an insignia that looks like something from Star Wars have been designed. A contest is under way to name its troops (both “space cadets” and “spacemen” are off the table). There are suggestions that the Force will be modeled after the U.S. Navy.

Still unclear is what the force means for the future of outer space.

What is the Space Force?

On December 20, 2019, the U.S. Space Force became the sixth independent service branch of the United States military. Its mission: to organize, train, and equip “space forces in order to protect U.S. and allied interests in space and to provide space capabilities to the joint force.” According to Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Space Policy Steve Kitay, the force supports three goals: space superiority, space support to U.S. and allied forces, and stability in space.

The Space Force resides within the Department of the Air Force, its 16,000 active staff (most civilian) drawn from existing Air Force personnel. Thus, while General John Raymond, the first chief of space operations, declared that the Space Force “truly launches us into a new era,” others argue that the Space Force amounts to little more than bureaucratic reshuffling and rebranding.

Still, there are indications that long-term thinking is much more ambitious.

A shifting warfighting calculus

As a dedicated warfighting service that includes both offensive and defensive operations, the Space Force signals the disruption of decades-long efforts to maintain outer space as a peaceful domain. While some accuse the United States of unilaterally turning outer space into a warfighting domain, U.S. leaders insist that the practice of peaceful use ended long ago, pointing to what they see as efforts by others to ‘weaponize’ outer space. And it is true that Russia and China are creating integrated warfighting missions that involve defensive and possibly offensive military capabilities in outer space, while the United Kingdom, France, and India are pursuing new, dedicated units focused on outer-space capabilities.

Warfighting has long been a function of space. The 1991 Gulf War is popularly described as the first “space war,” driven by satellite systems. Concerns of vulnerability in space are also not new. In 2001, Donald Rumsfeld’s Commission to Assess United States National Security Space Management and Organization warned of a possible “space Pearl Harbor.”

But today, the focus is no longer simply on waging war from space but conducting war in space. This rightly raises alarms about arms races, conflict escalation, and indiscriminate harm to the environment and the global community.

Also significant is a perceived shift in the nature of conflict in outer space. The Rumsfeld Commission focused on asymmetric vulnerability in space: the potential for a surprise attack to debilitate U.S. capabilities. Such concerns persist, but military competition in outer space has taken on even greater significance. Today, in what then-Acting Defense Secretary Shanahan has called an “era of great power competition,” the thinking is that the next big conflict could be “won or lost in space.” Kitay views space power as central to “national power, prosperity and prestige.” Other countries concur. China views space as central to “comprehensive national power.”

Major global militaries now seem to view outer space as more than merely an enabler of warfighting. Space is being conceptualized as the future source of power itself—the new “high ground.”

Who controls the future of space?

There are indications that strategic thinking within the Space Force is being influenced by the role of the Navy, including an extended mission described by Kitay as including “safe transit to and from space.” Writing in The Washington Post, David Montgomery drew parallels to earlier debates about the Navy’s expanding its role beyond “brown water” or territorial waters, where it provided “support for operations on land, ferrying troops and guarding coasts and rivers,” to “blue water” or the high seas, where it supported the “exploration of new lands, keep[ing] sea lanes open for commerce, project[ing] national power without firing a shot.”

While the Space Force currently has a “brown water” mission, a “blue water” mission could be part of its not-too-distant future. Veiled statements by military officials indicate that its operations won’t be restricted to the operation of satellites. Even the current National Space Strategy seems designed to support a more ambitious future in space, as it calls for “dynamic and cooperative interplay between the national security, commercial, and civil space sectors.”

President Trump’s 2020 State of the Union address reaffirmed “our heritage as a free nation” with roots as a “frontier nation.” Referring to the new Artemis program to return U.S. astronauts to the Moon and beyond, he claimed that the United States must now “embrace the next frontier, America’s Manifest Destiny in the Stars.” It’s not a stretch to believe that the U.S. Space Force is part of a longer-term struggle to control the future of outer space.

Rewriting the future

One pitch for the Space Force is that it will secure freedom of action in outer space, at a time when global economic activity in space is expanding. However, it is not clear that the Space Force will use only benign methods to maintain this freedom.

And outer space is not supposed to operate like the high seas. Negotiated during the early years of the space age, the Outer Space Treaty (OST) not only imposed arms-control measures on the most heinous of weapons but enshrined such deeply held human-centred values as peacefulness, cooperation, and universal benefit in sanctioned space activities. The treaty’s overarching goal was to avoid the competition of great powers and colonialism in outer space.
A representative of the Space Force indicated that the OST still carries weight: “The Outer Space Treaty does not limit how states organize military forces. It does mandate there will be no weapons of mass destruction or military bases on celestial bodies—neither of which are implied by the creation of the U.S. Space Force.”

It is reassuring to know that the U.S. government is adhering to what it sees to be the letter of the OST. But there is a significant gap between the narrow arms-control elements of the treaty and the broader values it enshrines. And there are rumblings that the OST is no longer seen to serve a useful role.
A January 2020 Congressional Research Service report, Challenges to the United States in Space, claimed that most experts deem “the diplomatic and legal frameworks to govern space as antiquated and inadequate.” Speaking about U.S. ambitions on the Moon last year, Vice President Pence proclaimed that “the rules and values of space, like every great frontier, will be written by those who have the courage to get there first and the commitment to stay.”

What role will the new Space Force play in writing those rules?

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