What Is the U.S. Space Force?

The United States Space Force is a newly proposed military branch that President Donald Trump announced during a meeting of the National Space Council on June 18, 2018. If the proposal is enacted, it will become the sixth armed forces branch, joining the Navy, Army, Marine Corps, Air Force and Coast Guard.

Trump’s announcement took many by surprise, especially in the Pentagon. Some saw the sudden proposal as a strategy to compel Congress and the Department of Defense into supporting a military branch focused solely on space. Others saw it as answering the need to address the growing rivalry and presence of China and Russia in space.

“It is not merely enough that we have American presence in space,” Trump said during his public proposal. “We must have American dominance in space.”

Vice President Mike Pence officially unveiled the plans for the U.S. Space Force a short two months later on Aug. 9, 2018.

So, what is the Space Force?

As much as it sounds like the Space Force will be astronaut soldiers wielding blaster rifles, the reality is much more mundane. Rather than deploying soldiers in space, the Space Force will focus on national security and preserving the satellites and vehicles that are dedicated to international communications and observation.

Immediately following Pence’s announcement in August, the Pentagon released a report that detailed some of the Department of Defense’s immediate actions for creating the Space Force:

  1. Establish a Space Development Agency – This is an agency tasked with developing and testing new and improved national-security capabilities and technology in space.
  2. Establish a Space Operations Force – This force will be a collection of space experts from throughout the military who will provide needed expertise to combat commanders and anyone else throughout the Space Force.
  3. Create a United States Space Command – Led by a four-star general or flag officer, the new space command would direct and improve operations for space war fighting.

These three components would later be united to become the final Space Force.

Why is a Space Force needed?

Russia and China are the U.S.’s two greatest space competitors and also potential military threats. And both have demonstrated formidable space capabilities.

In 2007, for example, China launched a missile that climbed skyward for 500 miles until it impacted one of the country’s own defunct weather satellites, which rained down in thousands of pieces. In a similar unnerving event in 2014, a piece of supposed Russian space junk called Object 2014-E28 turned out to be an autonomous robot of sorts that was capable of docking onto satellites.  

During his August 2018 address, Pence said that China was investing in hypersonic missiles capable of evading U.S. detection. And both Russia and China had integrated anti-satellite attacks as part of their wartime protocols.

Given that the U.S. government and military rely heavily on satellites for forecasting weather, collecting high-resolution images for intelligence and directing missiles with GPS satellites, the threat became obvious.

Does something like this already exist?

China, Russia and the United States have military sectors already dedicated to space. Russia revived the Russian Space Forces in 2015 as a branch of the Russian Aerospace Forces. In the same year, China established the People’s Liberation Army Strategic Support Force as the space and cyberwarfare branch of the People’s Liberation Army.

The U.S. has the Air Force Space Command, which is integrated into the U.S. Air Force. But many have argued that an independent branch should be established to focus exclusively on space. “Whether it’s a Space Force or something else, it is absolutely critical to have someone who thinks about this day and night,” Terry Virts, a retired NASA astronaut and former Air Force fighter pilot, told SpaceNews.

Representative Mike Rogers, R-Ala., first made such a proposal. He called it the U.S. Space Corps during the 2016 Space Symposium in Colorado Springs, Colorado.

The proposal was eventually included as an amendment to the House of Representatives 2018 National Defense Authorization Act, which spelled out the Department of Defense’s budget and policies for the 2018 fiscal year. The House passed the bill with the amendment, but members of the Senate viewed the amendment with skepticism and ultimately vetoed it.

Trump then commandeered the debate in June 2018 and announced the administration would form the U.S. Space Force.

What’s next? 

Many details remain uncertain, such as how much a new military branch would cost and whether Congress would ever fund it.

“It’s hard to see a scenario where the Space Force doesn’t need a bunch of additional money to not only fund the reorganization but also all the new programs and capabilities,” Brian Weeden, a space policy expert at Secure World Foundation in Washington, D.C., told Politico.

The White House pushed for Congress to invest an initial $8 billion in national security space systems over the next five years. But creating an entirely new branch of the military is expected to cost much more. A leaked memo from the Air Force in mid-September shows estimates of it requiring as much as $13 billion in its first five years.

Because the program would also draw resources and a necessary 13,000 personnel away from other military branches, some fear it would weaken the U.S. military overall.

The Pentagon, nevertheless, immediately got to work on laying out the proposal. Less than two months later, in early August 2018, Pence announced that the new branch would be established as soon as 2020.