“Space Force” sounds like something out of a science fiction show or an astronomical video game; yet, the U.S. Space Force (USSF) has been a legitimate branch of the U.S. military for around eight months now, functioning as an arm of the U.S. Air Force. On Monday, August 10, they released their official doctrine, entitled “Spacepower.” The 64-page document delineates how and why the U.S. will flex its military muscle in outer space. Many critics and observers view “Spacepower” as an official militarization of outer space; however, these detractors are forgetting the militaristic ties other countries’ space agencies posessess, as well as the fact that low-Earth orbit has faced questions of militarization since Russians launched the Sputnik satellite in 1957. Nonetheless, the Trump Administration’s establishment of the USSF through the FY2020 National Defense Authorization Act does represent a major shift in U.S. strategy, and it’s important to understand the shift in the U.S. within the context of the strategies of other space faring nations and the U.S.’s previous actions.
A set of United Nations treaties determine international space law, the most important treaty being the Outer Space Treaty (OST) of 1967. The OST establishes that space is to be explored and used for peaceful purposes only. “Spacepower” does acknowledge this, but it adds a caveat: “…no domain in history in which humans contest policy goals has ever been free from the potential for war. In keeping with international law, the United States acknowledges that the use of space is for peaceful purposes, while preparing for the reality that space must be defended from those who will seek to undermine our goals in space.” It would be naive to imagine that space will continue to be a solely cooperative environment, as that has never been true as long as humans have had access to space. Tests of anti-satellite systems date back to 1959, and during the Space Race of the 1960s, the U.S. and the USSR competed during various projects to be the first to the Moon. Society’s dependence on satellite technology is even more present today, from GPS navigation to weather forecasting, which combines cybersecurity and issues of space power. Anti-satellite systems are able to shoot down satellites, making them capable of taking action against a country’s infrastructure without conducting a direct attack within said country.
Still, the direction that major space powers—like the United States—take their programs undoubtedly plays a role in setting the tone for the direction of larger space exploration and usage. The creation of the Space Force was significant on a domestic level because, up until that point, all space operations had been handled by NASA, which was set up specifically as a non-military, civilian governmental agency. However, the organization’s establishment was not anything new precedent-wise internationally, because the agencies of other countries have long been closely tied to the military. For example, NASA historians describe how “everything about the Soviet space program was a classified secret,” and the official military space branch for Russia, the Aerospace Defense Forces (VKO), was created in 2011. Furthermore, according to a USSF press release, the U.S.’s Space Force was spurred by the need to address “the present reality that our adversaries have made space a warfighting domain.” USSF isn’t wrong—for years, China has been able to shoot down missiles in space, and Russia reportedly has a laser-based antisatellite system. Increasing concern about the military capabilities of these space powers—the United States’ primary space rivals—along with increasing tensions with Iran and suspicions that Iran is using its space program to develop nuclear weapons, led the Trump Administration to take this more aggressive stance on space power.
The “Spacepower” doctrine lays out three “Cornerstone Responsibilities of Military Space Forces,” which are to preserve freedom of action, enable joint lethality and effectiveness with the other branches of the U.S. military, and provide independent military options for national security and projecting national power. Overall, the document focuses quite heavily on potential threats, making policy experts skeptical that the document will truly guide the military, and Space Force specifically, in maintaining space as a peaceful environment. Victoria Samson, the Director of the Washington Office of the Secure World Foundation, voiced these sentiments to SpacePolicyOnline.com while also stating that space “never has been a benign environment,” which, in her opinion, renders Space Force a necessity. The question remains whether this is the right balance to strike amidst the rising power of other space agencies—especially those of formidable space powers like Russia and China—or if it will only escalate tensions. In line with its greater domestic and international policies, it appears as though the Trump Administration has forgotten the power of diplomacy in forming agreements and cooperation in space. That, or they never knew it in the first place and have instead turned to the fear inherent in the use of force to advance national security interests.
With Iran, under President Trump, the Department of State has criticized the Iranian space program, calling it a cover for the development of ballistic missiles that could deliver nuclear weapons. On September 3, 2019, the State Department designated the Iran Space Agency and two of its research institutes as proliferators or supporters of weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) and WMD delivery systems. In a press release announcing these sanctions, the Department wrote, “Space launch vehicle (SLV) technologies, such as those developed by Iran’s space program, are virtually identical and interchangeable with those used in ballistic missiles. Iran’s civilian space launch vehicle program allows it to gain experience with various technologies necessary for development of an ICBM [intercontinental ballistic missile].” Despite the legitimacy of these concerns, it is doubtful that increased military action from the U.S. will cause the Iranians to stand down.
The Space Race and the Nuclear Arms Race are two prime examples of how increased space militarization from the U.S. is likely to increase Iran’s desire to develop militaristic capabilities in space. Under President Trump, the United States pulled out of the JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action), an agreement that—though imperfect—was an instrumental part of the U.S.’s deterrence of the Iranian nuclear program. With the JCPOA, there were regulations in place that limited Iran’s enrichment, uranium stockpile, and ability to conduct advanced centrifuge research and development, and subjected them to an inspection regime—all of which decreased their breakout capacity. With those regulations implemented, Iran’s ability to deliver a nuclear missile was greatly decreased, making this space program less of a threat; without them, that buffer is lost.
In multiple arenas of spacy policy—from diplomatic cooperation, to resource allocation, to militarization—the U.S. is becoming more aggressive, more unilateral, and less interested in cooperation. The Space Force and “Spacepower” are simply the newest examples of this shift. Thus, as space continues to be the international “new frontier,” if it wants to remain a global leader, it is imperative that the U.S. positions itself carefully, using the Space Force to establish not only a model for measured space defense but also for peace.