US Space Force: Everything you need to know on its first anniversary

United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket lifts off March 26, 2020.

In the first official launch for the US Space Force, a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket lifts off from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on March 26, carrying a military communications satellite.

United Launch Alliance

The US Space Force is now a year old, and it continues to consolidate the Defense Department’s orbit-focused operations, everything from running satellite launches to managing the GPS constellation to flying the secretive X-37B space plane. Cape Canaveral is now a Space Force base.

For a lot of folks, the name “Space Force” sounded like a punchline. Think “space cadet.” Spaceballs. Marvin the Martian’s Q-36 explosive space modulator. Netflix appropriated the name for a comedy starring Steve Carell. The Twitter snark soared into the stratosphere — it didn’t help matters when William Shatner blustered about Space Force’s rank structure.

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But this is serious business. The rationale for forming a new branch of the US armed forces was to spotlight and formalize dealing with military matters in Earth’s orbit. No, that doesn’t mean sky-soldiers zooming around with laser blasters, Moonraker-style. It has a lot more to do with using and protecting the satellites that are essential to modern warfare — and 21st century economies — especially for high-tech countries like the US and some of its potential adversaries.

As President Donald Trump, Space Force’s first and most vocal champion, gets set to leave office, Space Force continues to grow and is set to outlast the administration that brought it from an aside in a speech to an established military reality. The initial crop of direct enlistees into the branch are starting their new roles as Space Systems Operations specialists: The first seven such recruits graduated from basic military training in a ceremony held Dec. 10 in San Antonio, Texas. They join more than 2,000 others already serving under the Space Force banner, and now to be known as “guardians.” At full strength, the branch is eventually expected to number about 16,000.

“A year ago, Space Force was an idea,” Department of the Air Force Secretary Barbara M. Barrett said in a statement in October. “There’s been a big mindset change, and we’ve got to build on that.”

Here are the key things to know about America’s newest fighting force. 

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What exactly is Space Force?

Space Force was established on Dec. 20, 2019, with the 2020 National Defense Authorization Act providing $40 million to get things going, and it’s being put into operation — or “stood up,” in Pentagon-speak — over 18 months, which takes us to mid-2021. Its responsibilities, according to the new branch’s fact sheet, include “developing military space professionals, acquiring military space systems [and] maturing the military doctrine for space power.” 

US Space Force logo on a United Launch Alliance rocketUS Space Force logo on a United Launch Alliance rocket

The logo for the US Space Force, as seen on the side of a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket on March 25.

United Launch Alliance

That doctrine, titled Spacepower, was published in June 2020 and highlights the value of “the control and exploitation of the space domain” for surveillance, accomplishing strategic and military objectives and to preserve “the prosperity and security of the United States.”

“Personnel conducting space operations, engineering, acquisitions, intelligence, and cyber comprise the space warfighting community and must therefore master the art and science of warfare — they are the Nation’s space warfighters,” the document reads.

At the helm is Gen. John “Jay” Raymond, the country’s first chief of space operations — and the very first member of Space Force.

It’s the sixth branch of the US military, so in that sense it’s equivalent to the Air Force, Army, Navy, Marine Corps and Coast Guard. There is some bureaucratic nuance to that: Space Force falls under the Secretary of the Air Force, similar to how the Marines come under the Secretary of the Navy.

In this initial phase, it’s leaning heavily on that sibling. What’s now the Space Force was the existing Air Force Space Command, and its those space-related Air Force personnel who’ve been transferring over throughout 2020. Eventually the new branch will consolidate space missions from across the US armed forces. (The Army and Navy currently have their own operations).

“This first year was about inventing the force. This next year … we’re really focusing on integrating that force across our joint partners,” Raymond said.

What has Space Force accomplished so far?

It got off to a bit of an awkward start in January 2020 when Trump revealed the Space Force logo, which took a lot of social media grief for its striking resemblance to the Starfleet Command logo from the Star Trek series. There was also the ribbing that ensued when Space Force offered a peek at the quite earthy camouflage design of its uniforms.

More to the point of what the new branch is all about: On March 26, Space Force carried out what it called its first national security space launch, sending into orbit a military communications satellite, built by Lockheed Martin, that’s part of a six-satellite network of encrypted, jam-proof systems.

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On May 17, Space Force launched the secretive X-37B space plane into orbit. It’s carrying experiments for NASA and the military, including one studying the effects of radiation on seeds and another looking at transforming solar energy into radio frequencies that can be transmitted to the Earth’s surface.

Meanwhile, SpaceX has helped Space Force launch new GPS satellites over the past year. The first four of the GPS III generation of satellites all became operational in 2020.

In April, the US Air Force Academy’s graduating class of 2020 included, for the first time, officers being commissioned directly into the Space Force. Of the more than 960 graduates, 86 were tabbed to become Space Force’s first company-grade officers. As of May 1, Air Force members already on active duty could volunteer for transfer to the Space Force, with those transfers expected to begin around the start of September. Those eligible to transfer include officers and enlisted members in fields including space operations, cyberspace operations, geospatial intelligence, signals intelligence and targeting analysis.

Space Force aims to have about 2,500 members in space operations career fields by the end of calendar year 2020. It’s on track to have around 6,500 members by the end of the 2021 fiscal year on Sept. 30, 2021.

On Dec. 20, Vice President Mike Pence announced that members of the Space Force will be known as guardians.

How did Space Force get started?

The idea for a cosmic military branch captured widespread attention after an aside by Trump, who first used the term “space force” in public during an address to US Marines in March 2018.

“We’re doing a tremendous amount of work in space, and I said, ‘Maybe we need a new force. We’ll call it the Space Force,” Trump said during the speech. “I was not really serious, and then I said, ‘What a great idea. Maybe we’ll have to do that.'”

Three months later, Trump made it clear he was serious. At a meeting of the National Space Council, chaired by Pence, the Department of Defense was directed to begin the process of forming a sixth branch of the military.

“It is not enough to merely have an American presence in space,” Trump said. “We must have American dominance in space.”

The president doesn’t have the authority to create a military service on his own. That’s a job for Congress, which hadn’t done so since 1947 when, with President Harry Truman’s signature, it spun the Air Force out of the Army.

In October 2018, the National Space Council approved six recommendations to send to the president, which would become part of Trump’s fourth Space Policy Directive, which he signed in February 2019. The recommendations laid the groundwork for the Space Force by establishing a new, unified space command and a new space technology procurement agency.  In August 2019, Trump formally reestablished the US Space Command as a division within the Department of Defense. It was one of 11 unified combatant commands, each of which oversees a certain geographical or functional area — for instance, the European Command and the Cyber Command.

In addition, Pence said during his speech announcing the plan that the Space Council would work with the National Security Council to “remove red tape” around the rules of engagement in space. This could be construed as looking for a way around the insistence of the international Outer Space Treaty that all activities in space be peaceful.

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So this didn’t come out of nowhere. What exactly has the military been up to?

Before the Space Force, there was a US Space Command established as part of the Air Force in 1985 during the administration of President Ronald Reagan, who had some controversial ideas about space-based defenses. Space Command merged with US Strategic Command in 2002 following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

The US military has been involved in space-related projects for decades. In the 1960s, at the same time that NASA was working toward a moon landing, the Air Force even had a parallel manned space program with its own astronauts, although none of them ever launched, as far as we know.

“Our adversaries are moving … to reduce our advantage [in space]. I’m not confident we can achieve victory, or even compete, in a modern conflict without space power.”

Gen. John Raymond, chief of space operations, Space Force

More recently, the Air Force, Navy and Army have had their own units focused on elements of operations in space. A Pentagon memo obtained by Defense One indicated that the Trump administration’s original proposal for a sixth military branch had the Space Force absorbing the Naval Satellite Operations Center, the Navy’s Space and Naval Warfare Systems Command, parts of Air Force Space Command and the Army’s 1st Space Brigade, which was specifically created for “enabling the delivery of decisive combat power” and includes two astronauts who are basically on loan to NASA.

A significant portion of US military activities tied to space has resided in the Air Force Space Command, headquartered in Colorado, with over 30,000 people worldwide and launch facilities in Florida and California. The command handles missions that include satellite communications, missile warning systems, surveillance of space activities and projects like the X-37B space plane.

In October 2020, Raymond officially established Space Operations Command at Colorado’s Peterson Air Force Base, which will be the first of three US Space Force field commands.

Why do we need this? 

Officials in the Trump administration have made the argument that space is already a “war-fighting domain” and that other global powers like Russia and China are already treating it as such. That phrase echoes what some in the Air Force had been saying for a number of years.

The stakes are high. Much of our 21st century economy and lifestyle — from bank transactions and weather forecasting to television service and GPS — depends on satellites functioning round the clock and without interruption. The military depends on them too. But space right now is a bit like the Wild West, with a wide-ranging mix of government and commercial satellites, all of them sitting ducks.

We’ve even seen an instance of target practice: In 2007, China shot down one of its own satellites — mission accomplished in its own right — and littered orbit with potentially destructive space debris. Many saw that 2007 operation as a veiled display of military power.

“Our adversaries are moving deliberately and quickly in order to reduce our advantage [in space],” Raymond said at a conference in September 2020. “I’m not confident that we can achieve victory, or even compete, in a modern conflict without space power.”