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Trump’s call for a Space Force, explained

Trump thinks it would be a good idea to have a Space Force. Here’s what that means.

Future US soldier in space?
Colin Anderson/Getty Images

American troops are currently serving in hundreds of countries around the world. But if President Donald Trump and some members of Congress get their way, US forces may soon be fighting in a brave new frontier: space.

Yes, seriously.

On Tuesday, Trump endorsed the idea of a Space Force, which would take the Air Force’s current space missions and put them under a brand new branch of the US armed forces, whose sole mission would be to focus on space.

“We should have a new force called the Space Force. It’s like the Army and the Navy, but for space, because we’re spending a lot of money on space,” Trump said. His comments bolster a congressional proposal from last year that tried to formally create the new service.

Currently, the Air Force helps with spacelift operations, command and control of satellites, and more. The Space Force would absorb these missions. It would be its own military service and part of the Department of the Air Force, similar to the way the Marine Corps is part of the Department of the Navy.

It would also elevate space’s prominence in America’s military missions. There would be a new four-star general of the Space Force who would become the Joint Chiefs of Staff’s eighth member.

Rep. Mike Rogers (R-AL), the Space Force’s main champion in Congress, thinks creating the new branch is necessary for US national security, particularly because other countries are catching up to America’s power in space. “Russia and China have become near peers,” Rogers told NPR last June. “They're close to surpassing us. What we're proposing would change that.”

There’s just one problem: The Air Force is adamantly against it. “The Pentagon is complicated enough,” Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson told reporters last summer. “This will make it more complex, add more boxes to the organization chart.” Even Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis came out against it.

Worse, the congressional effort to create a Space Force failed last November, so it’s unclear whether the Space Force will actually happen. But now the president is openly advocating for it, which means it could become a reality.

Because as any self-respecting science fiction fan knows all too well, space is a dangerous place.

“Space is no longer a peaceful domain”

What was once the final frontier could soon become the front line of a future conflict. At least, that’s the view of the Defense Department.

“Space is no longer a peaceful domain,” Deborah Lee James, the last Air Force secretary, said in an interview last July. “There is a real possibility that a conflict on Earth could bleed into space.”

There are two main reasons for that: Russia and China. According to the Defense Intelligence Agency, Russia wants to gain more power in space because it believes gaining supremacy there will allow it to win future fights on this planet. And in late 2015, China created the Strategic Support Force, which is meant to streamline and improve its space, cyber, and electronic warfare missions.

They two countries are causing problems with anti-satellite technology, too, noted Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats in a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing last May — meaning they could mess with the satellites that help the US military do its job. The Pentagon is planning to open a space-war center to counter their threats.

Okay, but, like ... what sort of conflict is actually going on in space? What are we really talking about here?

Basically, there is tons of military equipment in space, especially satellites. This kind of equipment helps the US, Russia, and China — and any tech-savvy force — navigate terrain and communicate with one another. On top of that, assets in space help to track enemy fighters, take pictures for intelligence services, and even help control missiles. Without space, it would be much harder to fight on Earth; that’s why Russia and China are investing so heavily in it.

But Russia and China aren’t space’s only threats. The area just outside Earth’s orbit has seen an explosion of commercial satellites and other communications equipment since the 1960s, put there first by countries and, as of late, by commercial companies. That equipment is used to help drivers reach their destination, help potential lovers swipe right on dating apps, or simply help people text a friend.

The chart below shows the huge growth in these satellites. The blue line represents their total growth since around 1960.

Department of Defense

The internet, of course, adds a new complication to all the equipment that countries are putting in space. Most notably, equipment can potentially be hacked. For instance, a team of hackers could jam a satellite by messing with its signals so it interrupts the satellite’s normal activity, rendering it useless. That could cause problems for all sorts of everyday activities, like credit card transactions and phone calls.

Then, of course, there’s space debris threatening all of that commercial and military space equipment, since it could knock into the expensive machines. NASA estimates that there are 20,000 pieces of debris larger than a softball orbiting the Earth, about 500,000 pieces of debris the size of a marble or larger, and many millions of pieces that are too small to register.

All of this is why Trump, Rep. Rogers, and even former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld believe the US needs a Space Force. It would ensure the safety of space equipment by monitoring physical and cyberthreats against US communication and navigation assets. It would be more of a defensive mission than an offensive one — for now. That doesn’t mean troops in space, yet, but who knows down the line?

Essentially, if the US military wants to protect life here on Earth, it needs to safeguard US assets in space. But is a Space Force the way to do it?

"This is a solution in search of a problem"

The main issue here is that Rogers and others — and perhaps Trump himself — believe the Air Force isn’t paying enough attention to space. That makes sense to an extent, as the Air Force’s main directive is to focus on flying planes here on Earth.

The idea is that creating a new service will ensure that there’s a segment of the military whose entire job is to focus on space 100 percent of the time. That would allow the Space Force to counter Russia, China, and other threats while giving space-focused staff more bureaucratic power inside the Pentagon.

But Sean O’Keefe, a former NASA head and Navy secretary, thinks creating a brand new branch of the military is not the right way to go. "This is a solution in search of a problem," he told me in an interview last summer. Basically, he thinks the Air Force is already doing a fine job protecting space — even if it does privilege earthbound pilots. Creating a Space Force would just add another layer of bureaucracy to an already massive organization: the Pentagon.

James, the former Air Force secretary, agrees. She thinks dealing with the current complaints about the Air Force and space — 1) that it’s not well funded, 2) that acquisition takes too long, and 3) that there is no one person to call about military space operations — makes more sense.

The first complaint is already being mollified to an extent. The Air Force asked for a 20 percent increase in funds to focus on space in 2018. As for the third complaint, James feels it’s a common refrain heard at DOD that doesn’t necessarily just apply to the Air Force and space. “If you look at any warfare area in the Department of Defense, there’s no single bellybutton for anything,” she told me.

So clearly the Space Force has its detractors — including the current Air Force secretary. And of course, Congress has yet to officially mandate its creation.

But with Trump’s endorsement, the conversation has kicked into high gear once again. Time will tell if future US troops will be wearing space helmets.