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The X-37B unmanned spaceplane.Photo: Boeing Foxtrot AlphaTech and news from the world of modern defense.
America is (maybe) getting a Space Force. On August 9th during a speech at the Pentagon, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence announced the formation of the newest branch of the armed services, the Space Operations Force, and a new U.S. Space Command. Time to look on the bright side. Here’s what the Space Force might have at the outset, and what might it need in the future.
Pardon us while we contain our excitement. Do you remember the clamor and cry over the past ten years for an independent space force? Neither do we. Yes, while more than half of the Navy’s strike fighter squadrons are out of commission, only a third of Army brigades are ready for combat, and nuclear submarines sit portside for up to two years without repairs, the Trump administration will ask for $8 billion in Department of Defense funding over five years to stand up the U.S. Space Force.
The Space Operations Force will be, as the Department of Defense explains, the sixth branch of the armed services, after the Army, Navy, Marines, Air Force, and Coast Guard. As Pence said during the announcement, “the Space Force will not be built from scratch, because the men and women who run and protect our nation’s space programs today are already the best in the world.” According a Pentagon report (PDF), the Space Force “will be an organize, train, and equip (OTE) organization responsible for national security interests in the physical domain of space.”
At the same time, the Pentagon will also create a U.S. Space Command that directs the employment of the Space Force. Space Command will be responsible for the operational side military space—much like U.S. Special Operations Command deploys teams of commandos to hot spots around the world, Strategic Command would fight a nuclear war, or European Command would handle a conflict with Russia, Space Command would handle the defense of—and a war in—space.
Pence’s speech hints—and common sense dictates—the Space Force will absorb those parts of the existing armed services that already have a space-oriented role. There’s a precedent for this: in 1947, the U.S. Army Air Forces broke off from the U.S. Army and became the U.S. Air Force. Now it appears likely the Air Force is set to lose a substantial amount of personnel and resources to the Space Force.
The Space Force will likely control a number of space-based assets already controlled by the services. These include:
The X-37B Space Plane
Photo: United States Air Force
America’s first all-military reusable spacecraft, the X-37B is currently owned and operated by the U.S. Air Force, but the tiny space plane fleet is almost certainly set to become Space Force property.
A small, unmanned spaceship with a payload bay the size of a pickup truck bed, the X-37B is boosted aloft by rocket and glides back to Earth like the Space Shuttle. The X-37B’s missions are highly classified but one likely mission is testing new satellite survivability technology, with the robotic spacecraft launching and recovering test satellites to figure out how to make America’s military satellite fleet less vulnerable to enemy attack.
There are two X-37B space planes, OTV-1 and OTV-2. Hopefully the Space Force will give the two spaceships actual names.
An Advanced Extremely High Frequency System satellite.Image: U.S. Air Force
Almost all satellites that have a military function will transfer to the space force. This includes the constellation of Global Positioning System satellites, communications satellites such as the Air Force’s Milstar, and early warning satellites designed to warn of impending nuclear attack. It’s even possible that the secretive fleet spy satellites operated by the National Reconnaissance Office, a civilian agency, could fall under the Space Force.
A ULA rocket prepares to launch from Vandenberg Air Force BasePhoto: NASA
A number of military bases—primarily Air Force Bases—that launch and monitor spacecraft from the ground will likely become Space Force property. Vandenberg Air Force Base, which launches military satellites will be a major base. (The Air Force also uses Vandenberg to test launch Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missiles, so the air service will need some sort of agreement to continue using its old base.) Other bases include Schriever Air Force Base, Peterson Air Force Base, Patrick Air Force Base, and Los Angeles Air Force Base.
There are also a number of space weapons and technologies the Space Force will eventually wield. A cynic will look across the expanse of human history and declare that humans will eventually put weapons in space, and indeed there’s little to stop us at this point other than good intentions. The Outer Space Treaty, while prohibiting the deployment of nuclear weapons and “weapons of mass destruction” in space, says nothing about conventional weapons.
Satellites that can saddle up to and take a good look at the spacecraft of potential adversaries would be high on the list. Highly maneuverable and equipped with cameras, an inspection sat could help the Space Force estimate a military satellite’s capabilities. Inspection satellites by their very nature however tread close to being weapons: a satellite that can position itself to get a good look at another satellite could lean on the thrusters a little farther and kamikaze the other satellite, crippling or destroying it. Earlier this month the U.S. government announced that a so-called Russian inspection satellite, Kosmos-2519 (which you can see launching above), was exhibiting suspicious behavior that raised suspicions it was actually an anti-satellite weapon.
The existence of anti-satellite weapons such as the Russian A-235 “Nudol” and Chinese SC-19 means that these countries consider U.S. military satellites fair game in wartime. The U.S. does not currently have any deployable anti-satellite weapons, although it did shoot down an aging spy satellite in a decaying orbit in 2008, and it did do a whole lot of development work on a missile known as the ASM-135 ASAT, which could be launched from an F-15 fighter jet, in the 1980s. Space Command may choose to develop them on the regular —at the very least to deter Moscow and Beijing from using their own in wartime, lest their own satellites get turned into space junk.
If adversaries have anti-satellite weapons, someone may have to play defense—at least until a new generation of satellites with defensive weapons takes flight. A defensive satellite could hang out near a friendly communications satellite and slam into any object that gets too close.
Orbital Strike Weapons
As the aversion to weaponizing space wears down it’s perhaps inevitable that conventional weapons will go into orbit. One concept is the so-called “Rods from God” or the “flying crowbar”: a satellite that carries a number of metal projectiles with a guidance system attached. On command, the projectiles separate from the satellite and descend from orbit to attack tanks, ships, enemy headquarters units, air bases, missile units, supply units, and so on. From low Earth orbit an object descends at speeds of up to 17,500 miles an hour, and the immense amount of kinetic energy transferred from the “flying crowbar” to the target on impact makes a warhead strictly optional.
One thing we probably won’t see a lot of: Space Force troops actually in space. Most spacecraft—meaning satellites—are unmanned, with only a very small percentage being crewed. Putting people in space is dangerous and expensive and avoided whenever possible. The trend toward military robotics on land, sea, and air will continue in space. In other words in the short term we’re unlikely to see astronauts armed with laser guns like in “Moonraker.”
All that having been said, a permanent human presence in space and other planets is an eventuality, not a possibility, and as space becomes more important we will almost certainly see an arms race in space leading to larger, more sophisticated and more heavily armed space ships. Advances in artificial intelligence aside, these will require some human presence in space for command, control, and other tasks. A hundred years from now, who knows what assets the Space Force could control. In other words in the long term, we could indeed see astronauts armed with laser guns like in “Moonraker”.
The Space Force was always going to happen sooner or later, although most observers thought it would happen much later. The peaceful space of the Space Age was never going to last forever. If Congress funds the Space Force and the organization becomes a reality, it could help force a balance of terror that militarizes space but prevents conflict through deterrence.
The only problem with deterrence? The alternative to peace must be so terrible as to be avoided at costs.
Not a great way to begin humankind’s spread through the cosmos, but a very human one indeed.