A Space Force? The Idea May Have Merit, Some Say

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis has said that he does not want to add “additional organizational and administrative tail” to the military.

WASHINGTON — President Trump’s call on Monday for the Defense Department to establish a sixth branch of the military, this one focusing on space, has not exactly engendered a groundswell of support at the Pentagon.

“We got it,” Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, replied when Mr. Trump put him on the spot during a speech and directed him to “begin the process necessary” to create a space force.

“Working with Congress, this will be a deliberate process with a great deal of input from multiple stakeholders,” the Pentagon press secretary, Dana W. White, said a few hours later in an email to reporters.

The Air Force was even more vague, promising a “thorough, deliberative and inclusive process” in the months, or more likely years, ahead.

Those statements, said Kingston Reif, the director of disarmament and threat reduction policy at the Arms Control Association, are “the sound of people punching the brakes,” he said. “They’re saying: We’ll study this one for a long time. We’ll study and study and study.”

But the Pentagon’s reluctance aside, does the United States need a space force? Some legislators and aerospace experts, citing growing threats from Russia and China, say a case could be made for one.

Representatives Mike D. Rogers, Republican of Alabama, and Jim Cooper, Democrat of Tennessee, have pressed hard for the idea in Congress. They argue that a new military branch is needed because the Air Force does not pay enough attention to outer space. What’s more, they say, Russia and China are developing anti-satellite weapons that could imperil American satellites.

“We could be deaf, dumb and blind within seconds,” Mr. Cooper, who sits on the House Armed Services Committee with Mr. Rogers, said in February at a space forum at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “Seldom has a great nation been so vulnerable.”

On Thursday, Mr. Rogers sounded a similar theme. A bill he and Mr. Cooper backed last year would have created a space corps under the umbrella of the Air Force. But the president took the idea a step further when he said he wanted a space force that would be “separate but equal,” an eyebrow-raising description that would essentially create a military service to join the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines and Coast Guard.

“The president decided to go straight there,” Mr. Rogers told an audience at a Mitchell Institute breakfast on Capitol Hill. “I’m fine with that.”

The concern about anti-satellite weaponry from Russia and China is a real one, Defense Department officials and aerospace experts say. A United States intelligence threat assessment warned in February that Russia and China would be able to shoot down American satellites in two to three years, potentially endangering GPS satellites as well as military and civilian communications satellites and the country’s spy satellites.

The satellites help guide aircraft carriers in the Persian Gulf, drones in the skies above Yemen and fighter jets over Syria. American ground troops on patrol in Afghanistan use GPS coordinates to track their movements, and intelligence officers at C.I.A. headquarters in Langley, Va., depend on spy satellites to gather information on adversaries.

“Everything the U.S. military does today relies on space,” said Brian Weeden, the director of program planning at the Secure World Foundation, a nongovernmental organization that studies space policy. Take drones, for instance, he said. “Their signals are routed over satellites. Data is routed over satellites. Intelligence satellites do the B.D.A. after strikes,” he added, referring to battle damage assessments the military makes to determine whether targets have been destroyed.

In the early 1990s, after the fall of the Soviet Union, the American military exercised restraint on anti-satellite weaponry, Mr. Weeden said, in the hopes that two other so-called great powers — Russia and China — would follow suit. But “great power adversaries have not decided to exercise the same restraint,” he said.

Now Russia and China are getting close to developing ways to disable American satellites, and if the United States goes to war with either of those countries, the fear is that they could interfere with American communications.

But how does having a space force fix that? Before Mr. Trump gave his order on Monday, Pentagon officials maintained that the Air Force and other services could protect military satellites. When Congress was considering a space corps last year, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said he did not want to add “additional organizational and administrative tail” to the military.

“At a time when we are trying to integrate the department’s joint warfighting functions, I do not wish to add a separate service that would likely present a narrower and even parochial approach to space operations,” Mr. Mattis said in a letter to Representative Michael R. Turner, Republican of Ohio and the chairman of the House Tactical Air and Land Forces Subcommittee.

But critics of the Air Force say that it will never make space its top priority when it also has pilots and warplanes to worry about.

And “we keep buying these big expensive satellites that are juicy targets for our adversaries,” said Todd Harrison, the director of the Aerospace Security Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “Meanwhile, our existing space forces are fragmented across our military.”

Mr. Harrison said that while the timing of the directive was off, given all that the military was dealing with right now, “the idea of putting those fragmented forces into one coherent organization, under one chain of command,” had merit.

Don’t tell that to Asgardia, though.

Asgardia, the pet project of the Russian billionaire Igor Ashurbeyli that considers itself to be the world’s first space nation (its “citizens” basically have to fill out an application), issued a statement on Wednesday criticizing Mr. Trump’s plan.

“Asgardia was founded on the core belief that space be used peacefully without Earth’s conflicts being transferred,” the statement said.

In Other News

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