On November 15, 2021, a Russian missile smashed into the defunct satellite Kosmos-1408, creating a cloud of debris that threatened astronauts aboard the International Space Station. That same day, a tweet from the 18th Space Defense Squadron—an arm of the U.S. Space Force—acknowledged the incident, saying it was tracking some 1,500 pieces associated with the event.
The 18th Space Defense Squadron (18 SDS), located at Vandenberg Space Force Base in California, manages the nation’s Space Surveillance Network, a series of ground and space-based sensors that track as many human-made objects in Earth’s orbit as possible. With its watchful eyes, 18 SDS “provides and advances a continuous, comprehensive, and combat-relevant understanding of the space situation,” according to the squadron’s fact sheet.
The incident with Kosmos-1408, the result of a Russian anti-satellite (ASAT) test, forced ISS astronauts to take shelter, but thankfully none of the pieces struck the space station or any other satellite in low Earth orbit. At least not yet. The dissipating debris cloud, at speeds reaching 17,500 miles per hour (28,000 kilometers per hour), will continue to pose a threat to space-based equipment—and human life—for years to come.
Space, as this sad episode affirms, is an emerging theater of war. It’s under this grim realization, among other factors, that the U.S. Space Force (USSF) was founded three years ago. Space ain’t what it used to be, both in terms of national security and as a place to do business.
Yet, the general public greeted the founding of the Space Force with mockery and disdain, and a satirical Netflix show further entrenched the ridicule. That the new branch was created during the Trump administration didn’t help, as the association only served to foster distrust. Similarities between the new Space Force logo and the Starfleet logo from Star Trek added insult to injury in terms of the public’s perception of the new branch.
And this really is a problem of perception. As an idea, Space Force predates Donald Trump, and while the branch’s purview certainly extends into the final frontier, its roles and capabilities are generally misunderstood. The latest addition to the U.S. Armed Forces is a logical and necessary response to our growing dependence on the space environment. What’s more, it takes a village to defend space, and in this, the Space Force is not alone.
Spoiling our shared orbital bed
The Biden administration recently announced that the United States will refrain from performing ASAT tests and is asking the rest of the world to follow suit, which, for the U.S., actually makes a lot of sense. The old saying is that you’re not supposed to shit in your own bed, and this bed—low Earth orbit—is packed with a tremendous and ever-growing list of important equipment, both private and publicly owned. ASAT tests and the resulting debris only add to the clutter up there, increasing the chances of in-space collisions and the destruction of important assets.
“If you create debris in orbit, you ruin it for yourself as well,” explained Aaron Bateman, a professor of history and international affairs from the Elliot School at George Washington University. With the Biden administration’s decision to forgo such weapons, the nation can “keep the diplomatic highground,” he said, saying it’s “important for the United States to maintain this posture,” that of “not procuring dedicated kinetic counter-space systems.” The U.S. is more dependent on space than Russia and China, and it’s through the acquisition of ASAT capabilities that America’s rivals are seeking to level the playing field, Bateman explained.
This emerging vulnerability, compounded by our growing reliance on space, was the driving motivation that led to the creation of Space Force. That said, it’s now three years later, and the public remains flummoxed by the branch, both in terms of what it does and why it’s even needed.
What is Space Force and what does it do?
The Space Force is the sixth and newest branch of the U.S. Armed Forces and a separate military service within the department of the Air Force. The military branch—the first to be created in 72 years—was established by an act of Congress and signed into law by former President Donald Trump on December 20, 2019. The USSF has its own service chief, General John W. Raymond, who sits on the Joint Chiefs of Staff. At the most basic level, the Space Force “organizes, trains, and equips space forces in order to protect U.S. and allied interests in space and to provide space capabilities to the joint force,” according to the Space Force FAQ.
As a military service, Space Force is responsible for protecting U.S. interests in space, developing “Guardians” (its term for Space Force personnel), acquiring military space assets, conducting space-based operations, and refining its military doctrine for “spacepower,” which Raymond says is “vital for our Nation, how military spacepower is employed, who military space forces are, and what military space forces value.”
With the recognition that space represents a unique warfighting domain, the Space Force doctrine seeks to preserve freedom of action in space, enable “joint lethality and effectiveness,” and provide multiple options for U.S. leaders when seeking national objectives. The spacepower doctrine outlines five core competencies for the branch: space security, combat power projection, space mobility and logistics, information mobility, and space domain awareness. The seven required disciplines to maintain these competencies include orbital and electromagnetic warfare, space battle management, space access and sustainability, military intelligence, cyber operations, and engineering and acquisitions.
President Joe Biden requested $773 billion to fund the Defense Department in 2023, of which $24.5 billion would go to the Space Force. That’s just 3% of the total defense budget, highlighting the branch’s current small stature and standing. Approximately 16,000 military and civilian personnel were assigned to the Space Force on its founding in 2019, according to the FAQ. Prospective Space Force Guardians are encouraged to enlist here.
That’s nice, but what does Space Force actually do?
Quite a bit—but the USSF’s activities and focus might not align with popular expectations. Its Guardians are not soldiers fixing for fights on the Moon or pilots preparing for Star Wars-like battles in spaceships, nor is it in the business of developing kinetic weapons systems to knock out adversaries’ equipment in low Earth orbit.
Space Force “doesn’t really control the critical capabilities for the nation,” said Bateman. When it comes to unified combatant command, that’s where the U.S. Space Command, or SPACECOM, comes in, he said. Space Command “makes the operational decisions to respond to attacks on U.S. security systems,” and it’s really this leg of the armed forces that “makes the operational calls.”
To be clear, Space Command is not a part of Space Force; the former performs the actual fighting, and it does so by tapping into the Army, Navy, Marines, Air Force, and Space Force to accomplish its missions in space. Space Force is there to provide training, equipment, and organizational support, as well as to develop various space-based capabilities. Together, Space Force and Space Command protect the U.S. orbital network. Space Command depends greatly upon Space Force, but it can draw its troops from any of the military’s six branches.
As a combatant command, of which 11 currently exist, Space Command has seen two stints, one from 1985 to 2002 and the other from 2019 to the present. This combatant command “conducts operations in, from, and to space to deter conflict, and if necessary, defeat aggression, deliver space combat power for the joint/combined force, and defend U.S. vital interests with allies and partners,” according to the U.S. Department of Defense. Space Command, it’s fair to say, is in place to do the work—and the fighting—that many people mistakenly believe is the responsibility of the Space Force.
Space Force maintains early warning radars capable of detecting ballistic missile attacks (including nuclear weapons and intercontinental ballistic missiles) and keeping track of objects in orbit, whether those objects are satellites or space junk. The branch also maintains Global Positioning Satellites and various weather and communications satellites. The Space Force works with vendors such as United Launch Alliance and SpaceX on launch operations, and is equipped with various methods of electronic warfare, such as satellite jammers.
Space Force, along with the other branches, works with the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) to procure its required satellites, adding yet another key player involved in U.S. space security. Said Raymond during a media roundtable on August 16, 2019:
[Our] relationship with the [NRO] has never been better. And we—we have a shared concept of operations, we have a shared vision and a shared concept of operations. We train together, we exercise together, we man the same [Space Command and Control] center…at the National Space Defense Center.
And just recently, we’ve come to an agreement with the [NRO] that in higher states of conflict, they will respond to the direction of the U.S. Space Command commander as it relates to protecting and defending those capabilities.
Raymond said Space Force doesn’t own the satellites provided by the NRO, but Space Force and the NRO “share information” are “in lockstep together.”
So what changed and why is a Space Force suddenly necessary?
Scott James Shackelford from the Maurer School of Law at Indiana University in Bloomington says the idea for something like a Space Force has been around for decades, even “back to 1945 when the Army Air Forces set up a space program,” as he explained to me. Not surprisingly, “the idea of creating a military space service was floated in the aftermath of Sputnik in 1958 and again during the Reagan administration’s Star Wars program in 1982,” but it took until 2017 for politicians on both sides of the aisle to get serious on the matter and propose the establishment of Space Force, he said.
The prospect of an independent military department for space didn’t have significant political backing until the Trump administration, according to Makena Young, an associate fellow from the Aerospace Security Project at the Center for Strategic and International affairs.
“Space is not a new concept for the military, but each military branch had a different way of handling concerns in space, [and] different ways of acquiring those space capabilities to serve their mission,” she told me. “The first mission of the Space Force is to take all of those separate space capabilities within the other branches and house all United States military space organizations, acquisitions, and capabilities under one roof.”
Wendy N. Whitman Cobb, associate professor of strategy and security studies from the School of Advanced Air and Space Studies at Air University, said several factors contributed to the creation of the USSF.
“The use of space by both the United States and others around the world has greatly increased—space-based systems have become incredibly important in our everyday lives, our economy, and our military capabilities,” she wrote in an email. “Because of the increasing use of space by many different people around the world, the U.S., potential adversaries, and private actors included, the space domain has become what is typically called congested, contested, and competitive.” The rising problem of space debris offers yet another threat to American space-based assets, she added.
Whitman Cobb said the Air Force was previously responsible for space security, but it wasn’t the service’s top priority, and given the increasing importance of space, “policymakers began considering the idea of a military service specifically charged with protecting U.S. concerns and assets in space,” the result being the Space Force.
A sense of urgency also contributed to the rise of Space Force, as China, Russia, and other adversaries began to develop weapons systems capable of disrupting the collective U.S. orbital network. Upon the cusp of Space Force’s creation, defense experts and politicians raised concerns that orbital warfare loomed on the horizon and that the U.S. was falling behind in this latest arms race. A Heritage Foundation article from 2018 captured the mood at the time:
While late-night comedians found the whole idea of the Space Force hilarious, the reality is that the United States faces growing threats from space. These include not only anti-satellite missiles that can shatter satellites into thousands of pieces of debris, but lasers capable of “dazzling” and blinding satellite systems, as well as cyber and jammer threats. The range of potential space adversaries includes not only Russia and China, but, as the vice president [Mike Pence] noted, also Iran and North Korea.
So in the late 2010s, space, long a peaceful domain, was increasingly being seen as a place to conduct war. Our growing dependency on space-based services added to the mounting sense of urgency.
“This includes things like GPS, which is a military system that has become increasingly pivotal in our lives and economy,” said Whitman Cobb. And in addition to protecting U.S. systems, the USSF must “deter potentially hostile actors from attacking or interfering with American satellites in the first place,” she added.
Should Space Force protect private space property?
Launching rockets to space has never been more affordable, nor has building satellites. The result is that the space directly above Earth is suddenly a hive of activity, with no signs of abating. In fact, Morgan Stanley predicts a trillion-dollar global space industry by 2040. It’s fair to wonder if the Space Force needs to be involved in this mad commercial dash to Earth orbit, and if so, how.
“Space Force has a role to play in ensuring the security of space-based infrastructure, but you could argue—and many do—that what’s really needed on that score is more of a traffic cop and binding regulations on manufacturers to do more to manage the issue of orbital debris, particularly as larger and larger constellations of micro satellites are launched,” said Shackelford.
Bateman said Space Force is still in its nascent phase and we need to be cautious when making predictions about the branch’s role as it pertains to the emergence of the commercial space market. That said, he says there have been positive signs from the USSF that it “wants strong partnerships with organizations that are moving very quickly, both with big contractors and smaller startups.”
Where things might get tricky, Bateman added, are the potential implications of these commercial capabilities being used in wartime contexts. As an example, San Francisco-based Planet Labs is making satellite photos of the ongoing conflict in Ukraine freely available, while SpaceX’s Starlink is providing internet connectivity for Ukranians in regions that would otherwise be without. Russia could deem these and other services from space as a security threat. China has certainly taken notice, with a research team recently articulating a strategy for disabling—and even destroying—the Starlink megaconstellation.
It’s an open question as to whether Space Force could respond to an attack on American-owned space-based commercial property. According to Bateman, Space Force maintains only non-kinetic counter-space capabilities, such as the ability to jam satellite communications, while the U.S. military in general does not currently maintain dedicated kinetic ground based weapons for destroying satellites. This area, it would seem, is somewhat terra incognita.
“As a branch of the United States military, the Space Force is focused on protecting American assets in space, and recent actions from adversaries in space reinforce why an organization such as the Space Force is and will continue to be useful,” Young told me. General Raymond “has been a consistent voice in speaking out about possible nefarious actions in space from non-U.S. parties.”
Said Shackelford: “Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has underscored both the need for enlivened international partnerships to ensure the continued peaceful use of space and the stakes if the conflict does extend to orbit.”
What does Space Force need to do to be effective?
It’s still early days for Space Force, but it’s not too early to start thinking about potential paths for future success. And of course, there’s always room for improvement, particularly given the public’s confusion about the branch and what it’s trying to accomplish.
Whitman Cobb said the biggest thing the USSF can do to be effective is to “build up its capabilities in terms of protecting, defending, and deterring,” which will serve to “provide a tangible service to U.S. national security that can be pointed to as evidence of their effectiveness.” In addition to being better at getting the public to understand what it’s actually doing, Space Force needs the public to grasp the importance of space and why U.S. orbital property needs to be protected, she added.
The Space Force, to be effective, needs clear and achievable goals and resources, “in particular a mission that the population can understand and isn’t a punchline or fodder for another Netflix reboot,” said Shackelford. “At the end of the day, it’s a relatively small force responsible for only one aspect of space security, which is a level of nuance that often gets lost in these conversations.”
Bateman says Space Force should break away from some traditional acquisition models and push for more resilient architectures, but that will cost lots of money and require support from Capitol Hill. He said the USSF public relations strategy is currently “not great” but “better than it was.” The branch, he said, needs to better articulate what it’s doing, and the “kitchie Star Wars stuff isn’t helping.” Space Force leaders should state that the branch is not focused on exploring celestial bodies, while making it clear that the U.S. should have “ready access” to satellite systems required for war fighting, among other security measures. A “simple message” is required, said Bateman, one that “better encapsulates what Space Force is doing to a larger audience.”
The public’s inhospitable reaction to the founding of Space Force is a classic example of future shock. As such, it’s something that’s likely to be more accepted as time passes and more people come to appreciate our growing dependency on the space environment. Space Force, along with its support structure, is here to stay—and that’s a good thing.