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article imageOp-Ed: Er, um… Space Force? Golly Gee! OK…?

By Paul Wallis     Jun 24, 2018 in Technology
Sydney - The Trump administration’s rather brief and very vague call for a US space force, despite its bombastic source, is a potential goer. There are reasons for the US to take a good look at this issue, and some real risks to address.
The story and the concepts behind a US space force are basically straightforward, despite the 1950s “Gosh, Beaver!” vibe coming from the White House:
1. Most of the US military uses space and satellites for communications. If that network goes down, things can get ugly.
2. China shot down an old satellite ten years ago, largely to prove they could do it. Since then, they and the Russians have been developing new tech, including lasers, to attack the US satellite systems.
3. Since the end of the shuttle program, the US has been rather vague, not to say comatose, on the subject of space communications management. In the military context, that may be intelligent reticence or senility, depending on who’s being comatose.
4. Space-based weapons are not yet a realistic option for anyone, but are quite possible, well within the next generation of weapons capability.
5. Artificial intelligence systems are the obvious class of systems for the demanding realities of space operations. This dovetails well with other AI systems coming onstream in military tech.
The realities of creating a US space force
To be clear about this – Space superiority will be what air superiority was in the past. It will be decisive. There are no caveats on what this new dimension in warfare may bring, with or without any intention to create a war zone in space.
The stakes, therefore, are huge. The stage, however, is cluttered with the older systems and various interests which may or may not be problems. The White House is talking about a new military force which will be “equal” to the other branches of the military and will have multiple operational roles.
This rather innocent looking statement is a lot more complex than it looks, even from the command perspective:
Operational reasons: One of the reasons for creating a space force is that “The Air Force doesn’t pay much attention to space”. Fair enough, considering that space isn’t part of the USAF’s brief. Exactly how a space force and the air force and other arms of the services would interact with an independent service is unclear.
Communications: If the space force is responsible for space communications alone, it would be the fulcrum for a lot of operational systems. Should those systems be part of an independent command, or directly under the control of the forces using them? The theoretical best practice option is that the commanding service dictates who does what.
Operations: Modern combat systems currently include real time monitoring, weapons control like drones, missiles, intelligence, and a lot more. Going through several areas of command may be a mixed blessing. Good organization can prevent that being a problem, but will it be well organized?
Combat: Will the space force be actual combatants? Probably, sooner or later. The US has a few cards up its sleeve if an active, combatant space force were to be created. Some very good tech, dating back since the shuttle program was ended, is already around and operational, including vehicles.
Enemies: The other side of this coin is that an active space force will definitely generate new weapons systems on the other side. This would be an ongoing “lukewarm war”, with no end to development and a potentially grim range of issues for operational systems development.
New technologies: The new generation of combat lasers, high powered electromagnetic weapons systems, and AI based combat systems are currently imponderables. These systems will have global reach, and the damage risks on the ground can only increase from current levels.
Vulnerabilities? Endless, and counting.
All fun so far? Now a few issues for anything calling itself a space force:
Economics: The current miserable 5-10% or so payloads and operational costs for space are hideously expensive. Every system in space will have to deal with these overheads, while overhead, if you’ll excuse the expression. Just maintaining active space systems could be a serious own goal.
Simply creating the systems to operational scale: The supply chain for creating a space force could be horrendous. From zero to a working space force would take a pretty long time, even with a few working systems available.
Logistics: A space force would have an audit trail of essentials alone which could go in to space itself in 5 point font if it was printed out. These issues include training, deployment, servicing, systems upgrades, etc.
Downtime: For military systems, the usual rule of thumb is that routine maintenance downtime alone will account for a certain percentage of the actual forces deployed. Even automated systems can’t be immune to this issue. The space force, even without a war, can expect to have a percentile of non-active systems much like the Air Force.
Obsolescence: Being at the cutting edge of technology also means instant obsolescence for current systems on a routine basis. Obsolete systems are vulnerable systems, particularly when the enemy knows what you have and is developing systems specifically to attack your systems.
Political neuroses: The US political environment isn’t exactly conducive to the sort of objective thinking required to set up a new military force. Policy tantrums, budgets, you name it, the first front line for a US space force will be in Congress. That alone could take decades to sort out.
Diplomacy: The Trump administration’s strong point isn’t diplomacy, nor is it forward thinking in terms of the results of setting up a space force. Future administrations, however, will be subjected to a virtual whipper snipper of revolving interests. The NATO/Russia/ US/ China equation alone is enough to create multiple clashes of interests. Other players, notably India, Iran, and other countries will also have inputs for acquiring systems and developing systems. This is a real raffle of risks, too, as others try to get in on the action.
The junkyard in space: The sheer amount of junk floating in space is an actual minefield for any space force. A bit of metal could destroy a multi-billion dollar system in less than a second, unless someone’s solved that problem. The shameless incompetence of failure to clean up the junk is now coming around, and it’s a real problem.
Could a space force actually counter attacks on satellites? No, unless someone’s being very coy about defensive capabilities. They could, however, attack the attackers and add a working ad hoc communications system as required.
Does the US actually need a space force?
Not right this second, no, unless China or Russia suddenly develops a very strong space presence with military capacity and a credible risk of aggression. Nobody else is likely to challenge the US in the short term. Eventually, however, the US military will have to have a specialized force able to deal with space communications issues and possible risks from space systems deployed by other nations.
Organizationally, an independent space force only makes sense if it is a space-operational force, as distinct from other theatres of war. A deployment on Mars or the Moon, for example, would be a natural development. Otherwise the USAF is the default bag carrier for orbital systems. Orbital combat, however, also involves a totally different operational framework compared to air/land/sea operations. An independent command, either intentional or by force of circumstances, would have to exist.
What about peace? Does a space force create a risk of war?
It could, if other nations reacted to the presence of a space force over their heads. The US may not intend its space force as a threat, but the mere existence of a type of weapons system has never been any sort of reassurance to anyone. Add to this the rather pushy nature of US diplomacy at the moment, and why wouldn’t other nations see it as a threat?
Does a US space force give the US global military superiority?
Hardly. The US has proven time and again that it has no idea how to fight Vietnam-style wars. It definitely couldn’t win a global Vietnam, with or without a space force. Even with support on the ground, something as basic as the well-known Chinese cell groups could create absolute havoc on the ground, and be virtually immune to retaliation on just about all levels.
In military terminology, this is called “economy of force”. In practice, one guy with a stolen screwdriver and a certain mindset could do more damage than the entire PLA without spending a cent. If the resistance came from the US, it’d be much worse. It’s unlikely the US would want to fight a war with its own presumably totally pissed-off citizens on that basis, either.
Any type of technically capable resistance on the ground could be far worse and far more effective than a pack of hacks like ISIS, too. Think billions of AI-based cyber-attacks and systems sabotage per second, 24/7, and you get the picture. What happens on the ground will still dictate military and human realities for a while yet.
Don’t hold your breath waiting for a US space force. The military, rightly, will want to do some studies, and try to create something that literally has a hope of getting off the ground. They also have to look at realistic military options, and a truly new form of logistics management.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of
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