A brief outline of Space Force
The concept of a Space Force has been around for a long time and has been on the political stage more than once. As the name suggests it is a military division dedicated to handling operations that take place or are based beyond the Earths’ atmosphere. There are now several nations that either have or are planning to develop such a force in the near future including China, Russia, France, Britain, and the United States. While they all have different names and organizational design these space forces all share some similar traits in that they are autonomous or semi-autonomous divisions of the military with a focus on space.
Military activity in space has, of course, been going on for a very long time. The earliest satellites and personnel in space were all tied to the military and in the United States, the USAF was launching missiles into orbit well before NASA was even formed. What makes this special isn’t that we have military assets in space but rather that this represents the development of Space as a unique warfighting domain unto itself just as we have seen before with Air forces developing around the same time in the twentieth century. This shows a watershed shift from Space assets as support for other domains and emphasizes just how vital space-based assets have become to all military operations.
Goals and reasons
There are a few major factors driving this new approach to the domain. The first is the decreasing cost and increasing availability of technology. There are more satellites in orbit now than at any time in history and more are launched almost daily from sites around the world. These range from giant telecommunications satellites launched by international conglomerates to chipsat science projects launched by students. In and around these are military satellites serving a variety of purposes including intelligence gathering, networking, and global positioning which is a project of the United States Air Force. The price to get to orbit is dropping dramatically as well with a myriad of private providers acting alongside and sometimes in collaboration with their government counterparts. It is now possible to get a 3U cubesat (A volume of 3000 cubic centimeters) to orbit for around 200,000 USD. This is why companies like SpaceX can now afford to take a chance on putting up vast satellite arrays. From a military perspective, this is quite cheap compared to available budgets. Nations are taking advantage of this and developing their own space programs far more than has ever been the case previously. With several major players now developing space assets quickly and looking to challenge others in the space domain, there is a growing sense of a need to ensure such challenges can be met effectively.
The second major reason for this development is that dependence on space deployed technologies and support assets has reached a critical level. Space-based telecommunications and information support have proven so useful they have been integrated closely with all aspects of a military operation. From providing relay signals for drone operations halfway around the world to target identification for soldiers on the ground military satellites provide substantial value to the warfighter.
The third major reason is that there is now a clear threat to satellites and space operations of all kinds. China has clearly demonstrated the ability to shoot a satellite out of orbit with ground-based missiles and France has put forth plans to arm some of its satellites with offensive conventional weaponry. Since satellites and indeed all space-based assets are connected to ground stations and depend on computers for their function they are also quite vulnerable to a cyber attack. There can no longer be any effective assumption of basic safety for satellites simply because they are out of reach. More and more nations are taking an active role in developing ways to attack satellites so nations now have to look harder at how they can defend against such attacks.
Space forces are in the nascent stage and it is unlikely that we will see anything like the media humor or hype that has pervaded to this point. However, it is clear that this is going to become an important domain for future military applications and one that more and more nations will become engaged in.
There are some interesting parallels with past human expansion to be drawn from this and there are both pros and cons to having constant and expanding military presence in space. Humans have always been interested in exploration and this has been an overriding reason given for much of what has been done in space to this time. Although there was clearly military and competitive edge to the space race of the 1960s it was also seen as a great time of exploration and human innovation. This next space race will have those qualities as well in part because of the military lead that is creating opportunities. With the development of space forces government efforts will become even more focused on space development and bring with them resources to solve some of the more difficult problems. Some of the resources will be spent directly but as is already happening many will be provided to private industry to create the tools the military wants. This hybridization is helping to overcome the lack of immediate cash flow that has been hampering private space markets with companies now vying regularly for government contracts. Thus we have a great chance to benefit from a vivified private space sector that will enhance human opportunities on this and other worlds. We can definitely gain ground in the long term goal of human colonization of other worlds and thus improve how we live day to day as well with increased resources and a more flexible population. As has often been stated this also puts us into the position of becoming a multi-planetary species and thus reducing the single point of failure issues that we currently face with a single world.
Future Applications and Evolution
The future of the space force will likely see us taking humanity to the stars in much the way that government exploration and then military presence has allowed for the development of the seas. While there are not any pirates or other direct threats at this point they will likely come in time as people become ever savvier about their ability to take control of satellites or even to fly manned vessels to take other peoples’ stuff once such travel becomes cheap enough that it is commonplace.
Until we have to deal with direct threats to trade and development there will be a function similar to a space coast guard for the space force to fill the time. After all, there is no developed infrastructure of any sort beyond LEO (Low Earth Orbit) and very little there. The laws of physics are immutable and many a mission will eventually find itself in a serious situation.