DC on T2

Capitol Corner — June

Published monthly as part of the FLC’s DC Perspective content, Capitol Corner focuses on one notable news item pertaining to the T2 community. The focus stems from agency publications, news sites and DC-central organizations, with original sources, contacts, and links provided. For more information and Corner-related inquiries, please contact dcnews@federallabs.org.


Earlier this month, we reported that President Trump recently announced plans to establish a Space Force as the sixth branch of the U.S. military. As we previously explained, this Force requires congressional authorization to become a reality, and it has received pushback from the Air Force Space Command, which handles current American space defense operations. For this month’s Capitol Corner, let’s examine what a Space Force could mean for the United States.

First—A Brief History of Space Defense in the U.S.

In 1999, Airpower Journal published “The Challenge of Space Power,” an adaptation of a speech by former New Hampshire senator Bob Smith the previous year. Smith asserted that America’s “constant supremacy in space” would help domestic security and prosperity, and keep us ahead of rival nations as we become a “politically powerful, independent advocate for space power.” Smith explains that the Air Force’s space budget was devoted almost entirely to improving communications and satellite technologies on Earth, rather than the interstellar potential of what he termed an “aerospace force.” His concept “reflect[s] the view that space is as fundamentally an information medium to be integrated into existing air, land, and sea forces.” Smith suggests that this force could only be successful if the Air Force employed “a highly skilled, dedicated cadre of space warriors clearly focused on space power applications” and also worked with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the commercial sector to more cost effectively venture into what many have called the “final frontier.” Without these two initiatives being spearheaded by the Air Force or other arms of the Department of Defense (DoD), Smith believed that Congress would need to establish a new service to establish these goals.

Former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld issued the Commission to Assess United States National Security Space Management and Organization in 2000, which seemed to kickstart some of Smith’s ideas. The Commission’s charter stood to “establish…a corps within the Air Force dedicated to the national security space mission” and also build a DoD suboffice dedicated to space management and organization. Chapter 6 of the Commission report suggested that the Air Force create a Space Corps, which would have “authority for acquisition and operation of space systems, perhaps to include both DoD and Intelligence Community systems,” but still find the Air Force competing for funding of both on-land and in-space resources. A Space Department would be a separate entity, uncomplicating budget concerns.

Finally, in 2010 the Obama administration published the National Space Policy of the United States in conjunction with NASA. Unlike Rumsfeld’s commission, this policy focuses less on DoD organization in relation to space, instead championing Smith’s push for public-private sector interaction. However, the issue of space defense does appear in the general sense, with a policy principle being “to help assure the use of space for all responsible parties, and, consistent with the inherent right of self-defense, deter others from interference and attack, defend our space systems and contribute to the defense of allied space systems, and, if deterrence fails, defeat efforts to attack them.”

Currently, the Air Force Space Command (AFSPC) provides space capabilities such as ground-based radar, a space-based infrared system and defense support program satellites used to monitor worldwide ballistic missile launches, and space surveillance radar to detect satellites and space debris. AFSPC employs 36,000 people, some of whom oversee the X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle, a space technology incubator to test Earth-made technology against the elements of space.

Space Force vs. the Outer Space Treaty of 1967

In 1967 the U.S., China, and Russia signed the Outer Space Treaty of 1967. Its narrative claims it as a “nonarmanent” treaty discouraging “colonial competition” of space. (The other nonarmanent treaty mentioned is the Antarctic Treaty, which sets up similar barriers to colonization on the seventh continent.) All three countries drafted proposals to “bar the use of outer space for military purposes” between 1959 and 1962. The final Treaty prohibits any signatory country from establishing weapons of mass destruction or military bases on the moon, space station, or other celestial bodies, limiting them to peaceful use. This Treaty, while not explicitly stated, labeled space as an exploratory frontier, culminating in the 1969 moon landing.

However, this Treaty doesn’t have any language forbidding missiles from entering space to target intercontinental foes, or being launched from a country’s space station. (Seeing as this Treaty was signed during the height of the Cold War, that omission is surprising.) In 2015, it was discovered that the Soviet Union fired a cannon from its orbiting space station in 1975, bringing the limits of this agreement into question. In the U.S., Defense Undersecretary for Research and Engineering Michael Griffin has already been in talks with the Pentagon about developing satellite-based weapons that destroy enemy ballistic missiles with particle-beam technology. With that said, the peace of space might unravel as the Space Force comes into greater focus.

Final Thoughts

While Trump’s Space Force remains a talking point without policy or budget frameworks, the potential of this defense arm is predicted to become the next trillion-dollar economy. According to a client note from Morgan Stanley, this Space Force “could address critical vulnerabilities in national security, raising investor awareness in the formation of what we see as the next trillion-dollar economy." Space already is a $350-million industry, but Trump’s move to ensuring American space dominance could be a massive boost to intergovernmental investment in this new domain. Whether that means more rockets glaring red or not awaits discussions in Congress.

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