I was four years old when the space race began. I’ll never forget my parents’ anxiety, nor that of our nervous neighbors, as we gathered along our darkening Connecticut street. We peered into the sky in the fall of 1957 and caught a fleeting glimpse of the beachball-sized satellite that cast a lengthening shadow of a new and surprising Soviet threat.
President Trump re-launched the notion of space wars back into orbit March 13 when he suggested the creation of a Space Force (no problem if you missed it: he canned Secretary of State Rex Tillerson the same day). But it has been around, in one form or another, since Sputnik began circling the globe.
I’ve covered the Pentagon for 40 years. Presidents have been interested in fighting in space for at least 35 of them. The prospect of actually doing it achieved escape velocity in 1983 when President Ronald Reagan unveiled his Strategic Defense Initiative, derided as “Star Wars” by critics. While dreams of space-based lasers and “brilliant pebbles” that could destroy enemy missiles remain a dream, the prospect of war keeps creeping ever higher into the stratosphere.
The initial military uses of space were merely as a thruway for U.S. and Soviet intercontinental ballistic missiles, and a parking lot for spy satellites. But war knows no bounds, and as technology has improved, so does the move to fight in the heavens. “Space is a war-fighting domain, just like the land, air and sea,” Trump said during his recent remarks at a California Marine base. “We may even have a Space Force…We have the Air Force, we’ll have the Space Force.”
Those are fighting words for the…U.S. Air Force, which currently runs most of the U.S. military’s space operations. The service, with help from its Pentagon overlords, just beat back a more modest congressional effort last year that would have created a “Space Corps” under Air Force control.
Bureaucracies can be funny like that. But there are a growing and disturbing number of signs that war is coming far above. The Pentagon said March 1 that it is considering creating a war-fighting space command. “The Department is moving quickly to prepare for conflict in space,” it told Congress. “The department will continue to develop the use of defensive and offensive capabilities and integrate the space domain into the joint war fight.”
It’s only “a matter of years” before the U.S. fights “from space,” Air Force Gen. David Goldfein, the service’s top officer, said in February. He urged his service, peppered with plane-loving pilots, “to embrace space superiority with the same passion and sense of ownership as we apply to air superiority today.” The Air Force has moved its experimental National Space Defense Center to full-time status January 8. "With the growing potential threats to our nation's space capabilities, we must adopt a war-fighting mindset and be prepared to defend and protect the assets that provide our joint forces and allied partners the asymmetric advantage from space-based capabilities,” Col. Tom Brost, director of the center, said as it began 24/7 operations.
And while information about U.S. attack forces in space are tightly held, the Air Force is working on what it calls a “Ready Spacecrew Program” and a “Space Mission Force” designed to “organize, train, equip and present our space forces to fight in a contested, degraded and operationally-limited environment.” The notion of a war in space mostly revolves around efforts to “blind” a foe’s satellites, reducing or eliminating their ability to communicate or see what’s happening down below.
The U.S. increasingly views China and Russia as potential space foes. In its latest budget plan, the Air Force boosts space spending by $7 billion—18 percent—over the next five years. The Pentagon and its allies on Capitol Hill are intent on pumping money into space weapons to keep an American edge up there. Unfortunately, it’s a quest as fruitless as preserving the U.S. nuclear monopoly following World War II (that lasted four years).
The notion that the Air Force focuses more on airspace and less on outer space isn’t a new one. “Everyone in the space biz, including in the military, knows that space was always the red-haired stepchild for the Air Force, despite the gung-ho rhetoric,” says Theresa Hitchens, a space scholar at the Center for International Security Studies at the University of Maryland and former director of the Center for Defense Information’s Space Security Project. Inside the service, space has been “misunderstood by the fighter jocks at the top and rarely given budget priority.”
The Air Force disagrees. “The United States of America is the best in the world at space and our adversaries know it,” Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson told Congress March 20. “In any future conflict we expect that they will seek to deny us the use of space. So what we’re doing in this budget is accelerating our ability to defend our assets on orbit,” she said. Her service, she added, is investing in jam-resistant technology for its constellation of 76 satellites, including 30 for the GPS system that tells your smart phone, or car, where you are, and 25 for military communications.
But that only works if an enemy chooses to play “nice.” China violently grabbed the Pentagon’s attention in 2007 when it destroyed one of its own satellites—a capability both Washington and Moscow have had for decades. Beijing could wipe out a “staggering number of U.S. satellites in the opening days of a potential conflict, thereby disabling many of the capabilities we’ve come to rely on in the United States military,” Representative Seth Moulton, D-Mass., said March 15.
Space represents what an MBA might call a market opportunity. At the Pentagon, they like to call them war-fighting domains. The U.S. Constitution, 156 years older than the Defense Department (although sometimes it doesn’t seem so), called for “Armies” and “a Navy” to fight on land and sea, the two oldest domains. The Air Force came along in 1947, four years after the Pentagon opened for business. Space and cyber are the newest war-fighting domains, and, like water in your basement, they are seeping into your house and demanding action whether you want to take it or not.
Many lawmakers aren’t happy with how the Pentagon is grappling with the space threat. “The Air Force has spent the last year on Capitol Hill fighting Congress trying to keep us from meddling in this issue,” Representative Mike Rogers, the Alabama Republican who chairs the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Strategic Forces, said February 28. Last year, Rogers and the senior Democrat of the panel, Representative Jim Cooper of Tennessee, proposed turning the nation’s military space forces into a separate uniformed service, but one that would report to the Air Force secretary. It would be similar to the Marines, which, while separate from the Navy, is run by the Navy secretary, the service’s top civilian. Like the Marines, the general in charge of what he calls the Space Corps would be a member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
But Air Force leaders argue that the move would create needless bureaucracy and make it more difficult for the Pentagon to integrate space into other war-fighting domains. “This will make it more complex, add more boxes to the organization chart, and cost more money,” Air Force Secretary Wilson said last summer when the service was fighting Rogers. “I don’t need another chief of staff and another six deputy chiefs of staff.”
There’s plenty of boxes already out there, and enough redundancy to go around: the Air Force has its Space Command, the Army has its Space and Missiles Command, and the Navy has a Space and Naval Warfare Systems Command. The military has long treated space as an afterthought because it was seen as merely supporting the combat forces that actually do the fighting. But if war comes on high, it may be time to consider plucking these space organizations from the services and give them to a force dedicated to space.
How the pie gets sliced is an issue in any big family—and in any big organization. That’s why the Pentagon—amazingly!—gives each of the three military services a piece pretty much equal to the other two. But creating a new war-fighting domain could disrupt this equilibrium, which, from the services’ perspective, places a premium on maintaining the status quo. It’s an age-old problem inside the Pentagon: the fight is rarely over whether it should embrace a new mission. It breaks down over who should perform that mission—and get the bucks flowing from winning that assignment.
“The Air Force has had amazing budgets for a long time to do a lot of things, and then they end up being unenthusiastic about drones because they’re not piloted aircraft,” warns Cooper of Tennessee (each of the military services spends close to $200 billion annually). “Historians will not be kind when they look back at this period.”
Cooper may have a point. There are echoes of earlier military squabbles in this intramural U.S. space war.
Following World War II, there was debate over folding the Department of War and the Department of the Navy into a single Department of Defense, with a new Air Force equal to the existing Army and Navy. The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor highlighted poor communication and coordination among the services. The Navy opposed the changes because of the admirals’ concern “that the Navy would lose its air arm to the Air Force.” Ultimately, while the Navy forfeited its independence and was made a part of the Defense Department, it did keep its airplanes.
In 1980, eight U.S. servicemen died in a vain effort to rescue U.S. hostages being held by Iran—a fiasco that led Congress to create the U.S. Special Operations Command in 1987. The military fought this re-organization, too. The Special Ops command remains the only worldwide war-fighting unit imposed on a reluctant Pentagon by a Congress convinced that the U.S. military didn’t know how to conduct a rescue operation.
Disasters drove both these major changes. Check out the darkening sky tonight and keep your fingers crossed that it won’t take a disaster up there, too, to address this latest challenge.