Anti-satellite weapons are creating space hazards

As companies and countries clamor to launch satellites and manned spacecraft, space is getting ever more crowded. And because satellites play increasingly important roles in military operations, multiple governments are developing anti-satellite (ASAT) weapons. But debris generated by anti-satellite weapons tests, like the one Russia conducted late last year, poses a significant threat to use of space, whether by militaries or private enterprises. Since 2007, the United States, China, and India have also carried out debris-producing activities, creating a hazardous environment for satellites and human space flight. While many experts agree that debris-producing weapons tests in space should be prohibited, very little progress has been made toward achieving this goal.

There’s a key obstacle in the way of formal anti-satellite weapons limits: Many countries around the world are developing missile defense systems, and several of the technologies used in missile defense are applicable to anti-satellite weapons. But there is a path toward eliminating the damage of the space weapons tests without limiting weapons technologies that can be used as anti- satellite weapons: A ban on debris-generating anti-satellite testing in space. Such a ban would be verifiable and circumvent the difficulty of eliminating whole categories of weapons technologies.

The United States demonstrated that space systems were essential for modern warfare during the first Gulf War, which also highlighted the reality that satellites were a key vulnerability for U.S. national security. To ensure unfettered access to space in wartime, Air Force Vice Chief of Staff General Thomas Moorman advocated that the United States develop the means for militarily controlling space.

Because of U.S. dependence on space systems, in 1998 the federal government commissioned a special panel to reexamine the organization and management of the American national security space enterprise. The panel’s chair, Donald Rumsfeld, warned of the potential for a “Pearl Harbor in space” and that space security, therefore, demanded renewed focus. When former President George W. Bush selected Rumsfeld as his secretary of defense, the president was choosing someone with a long history of endorsing space control capabilities.

The linkage between missile defense and anti-satellite weapons would once again become a key problem for space security in the post-Cold War era. The first really significant development for space security in the 21st century was Bush’s announcement in 2001 that the United States would withdraw from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, citing concerns about “rogue states” like North Korea and Iran. This move contributed to the proliferation of missile defense systems, which, of course, could also be used as anti-satellite weapons.

A watershed moment in space security was a 2007 Chinese weapons test that produced significant debris in low earth orbit. This was the first debris-generating anti-satellite weapons test in over 20 years. The tacit norm of not conducting destructive weapons tests in space was shattered. According to media reports, the Bush administration knew of the test ahead of time but said nothing in order to “maintain maximum flexibility for developing anti-missile defenses.” Washington, along with diplomats from around the world, resolutely condemned the test.

Approximately one year after the Chinese test, the United States executed Operation Burnt Frost, which involved shooting down a U.S. satellite that had reached its end of life. The Bush administration had determined that the satellite’s toxic hydrazine fuel posed a significant environmental risk and ordered the Pentagon to destroy it. The Navy used an SM-3 missile, designed for missile defense, to eviscerate the satellite shortly before reentry to minimize debris generation. Even though the operation was officially due to health and safety concerns, its occurrence so soon after the Chinese demonstration made the U.S. action appear to be a response to Beijing.

In recognition of the changing space security environment, the Obama administration declared that space was “congested, contested, and competitive,” a policy position that harkened back to the late 1970s, when President Jimmy Carter recognized that the United States and the Soviet Union were moving toward making space into a potential battleground. But former-President Barrack Obama did not take meaningful steps toward engaging with the international community to constrain either the development or testing of anti-satellite weapons. He did not reinvigorate the country’s anti-satellite efforts in response to space security concerns, but he also did not act to curb the harmful effects of anti-satellite weapons testing in space.

In certain key areas, former-President Donald Trump’s national security space policy recycled the Cold War space language of the Reagan administration. Trump famously created the U.S. Space Force as an independent service and called for “projecting military power in, from, and to space.” Space, Trump said, is “going to be a very big part of our defense and offense,” insisting on the need for space-based missile defense.

During Trump’s presidency, the Department of Defense began to formally refer to space as a warfighting domain. Despite these re-organizations and introduction of more aggressive space policy language, the United States has focused on developing technologies that would not physically destroy satellites, such as electronic warfare capabilities.

In his first year in office, President Joe Biden has had to contend with Russia’s first debris-producing anti-satellite weapons test in the 21st century. Moscow has conducted multiple tests that did not involve destroying a space object, and it is not yet clear why the Russian government conducted this particular test, especially when it could have endangered Russian cosmonauts and U.S. astronauts on the International Space Station. Perhaps the test was a “screw up” and the Russians did not intend to intercept the target in a way that produced so much debris. Regardless, the test incident highlighted the reality that debris produced by anti- satellite weapons is a serious threat to commercial, civil, and national security space operations, a reality that has been proven time and time again since the Cold War.

This emphasis on banning debris-producing space tests in no way suggests that other space arms control proposals should not be considered or pursued. For example, discussions aimed at preventing kinetic and non-kinetic interference with satellites used for nuclear command and control and early warning could reduce the likelihood of nuclear escalation. But the objective here is to secure an agreement, in the near term, that will lead to a more sustainable space environment.

A key lesson from the Cold War is that proposals aimed at limiting behaviors in space are likely to be more easily achieved than attempting to limit or ban whole classes of weapons systems with anti-satellite applications. The United States and the Soviet Union discussed anti-satellite limits multiple times, but definitional differences and concerns over verification stymied progress. It is very well possible that, had the American-Soviet anti-satellite weapons talks continued past 1979, a mutual testing moratorium would have been achieved. For the United States in the 1980s, the fact that anti-satellite weapons constraints would have limited missile defense development was the primary problem. At different points in time, Moscow and Washington did, however, limit their respective testing activities in space.

Securing formal constraints on dual-use technologies with anti-satellite weapons applications is going to be a long-term and uphill battle. To promote stability in space, the United States, Russia, China, India, and other countries should focus on finally establishing a prohibition against debris-producing tests. This will, at the very least, prevent the further generation of harmful debris in space due to weapons testing. It is indeed verifiable and overcomes the political challenges associated with securing a multi-party arms control agreement that bans specific weapons systems that can be used as anti-satellite weapons.

Developing rules of the road for space has long been on the diplomatic agenda, and it is time to act before debris-producing tests become a behavioral norm. It’s time to make an international agreement banning debris-generating anti-satellite weapons tests a top administration priority.

– edited from Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, January 21, 2022
PeaceMeal, March/April 2022

(In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.)

Private eyes in the sky: How commercial satellites are transforming intelligence

Hours after the Taliban swept into Afghanistan’s capital on August 15, media outlets began using imagery from commercially operated satellites to document the chaos unfolding at Kabul’s international airport in close to real time. Imagery showed enormous traffic jams leading to the compound and crowds of people flooding onto the tarmac and its lone runway. In the days that followed, the press continued to incorporate commercial satellite imagery into its reporting.

It was not the first time this summer that satellite imagery from private firms played a pivotal role in shaping the public’s understanding of a major national security issue. In late June, researchers at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies announced that they had discovered more than 100 new intercontinental ballistic missile silos in western China using images from a private satellite company. Less than a month later, analysts at another think tank reported that they had identified a second Chinese missile field under construction. Both revelations came not from government sources or leaks to the press but from imagery collected by commercially owned and operated satellites.

These events are likely harbingers of a future with fewer secrets. As private satellites proliferate, giving nongovernment entities new tools to monitor and independently verify the claims of politicians, governments are finding themselves with less and less control over sensitive information. But the new age of technology-driven transparency also affords governments new opportunities to gain a strategic advantage — by enabling independent verification of their claims, for instance, or by exposing the illicit or transgressive activities of their adversaries without compromising sources and methods. Whether govern-ments gain or lose from these disclosures depends on what they have to hide — and whether they learn to operate under the assumption that someone is always watching.

Until very recently, only governments had the resources to operate the vast intelligence apparatus needed to monitor the activities of other states. As a result, governments retained a near-monopoly on sensitive intelligence information, allowing them to determine whether and when to reveal their adversaries’ secrets. During the Cuban missile crisis, for instance, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Adlai Stevenson famously confronted his Soviet counterpart with reconnaissance imagery of missile sites in Cuba, exposing covert Soviet activity to the world.

Beginning in the 1970s, however, the proliferation of commercial satellites expanded access to sensitive intelligence information that was once almost exclusively in government hands. Over the past decade, the number of commercial satellites in orbit has increased significantly, as has the quality of the imagery they produce. Today, hundreds of satellites operated by private companies beam high-resolution images back to the earth on a near-real-time basis. Planet, a prominent commercial satellite firm that collected the imagery used to identify China’s missiles, currently operates over 200 satellites and claims to image the entire surface of the earth every 24 hours.

It should come as little surprise that governments are often displeased when satellite imagery is used to expose their deceptions or misdeeds. This was the case following U.S. President Donald Trump’s June 2018 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, after which he proclaimed that “there is no longer a Nuclear Threat” from North Korea. Within months of the summit’s conclusion, commercial satellite imagery identified 13 hidden missile bases in the North, casting doubt on Trump’s claims.

Under some conditions, the revelation of covert government activities can prove strategically desirable even for the state whose secrets are being exposed. Some analysts have speculated that Beijing wanted its ballistic missile silo sites to be detected, given how little care it took to conceal them from satellite overflight. The construction of new installations might be part of what the nuclear weapons expert James Acton has described as an elaborate “shell game” to obscure the true size of its arsenal and complicate efforts to target Chinese missiles.

Regardless of what they do, however, governments will find it increasingly hard to hide their activities from the growing number of private eyes in the sky.

– edited from Foreign Affairs, Sept. 23, 2021
PeaceMeal, Sept./October 2021

(In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.)

Is using nuclear materials for space travel dangerous, genius, or a little of both?

Susan D’Agostino

The 1977 Soviet satellite Kosmos 954 was supposed to monitor ocean traffic using radar – a technology that works best at short distances. For this reason, the craft traveled in Earth’s low orbit, where solar panels alone could not provide consistent power. And so, the satellite was equipped with a small, efficient, yet powerful nuclear reactor fueled by approximately 50 kg of weapons-grade uranium 235. Within weeks of its launch, Kosmos 954 veered from its path like a drunkard on a walk. The Soviets tried to eject its radioactive core into a higher orbit by way of a safety system designed for that purpose. But the safety system failed. In January 1978, Kosmos 954 burst into the Western Canada skyline, scattering radioactive dust and debris over a nearly 400-mile path. The cleanup and recovery process, which took nearly eight months and started in the subarctic winter, found that virtually all of the satellite fragments were radioactive, including one that was “sufficient to kill a person or number of persons remaining in contact with that part for a few hours.”

Now that the United States has set a goal of a human mission to Mars by 2039, the words “nuclear” and “space” are again popping up together in newspaper headlines. Nuclear propulsion systems for space exploration – should they materialize – are expected to offer significant advantages, including the possibility of sending spacecraft farther, in less time, and more efficiently than traditional chemical propulsion systems. But extreme physical conditions on the launchpad, in space, and during reentry raise questions about risk-mitigation measures, especially when nuclear materials are present. To realize the goal of a nuclear-propelled, human mission to Mars, scientists must overcome significant challenges that include – but go beyond – the technical. That is, any discussion about such an uncommon journey must also consider relevant medical, environmental, economic, political and ethical questions.

Spaceships that use chemical propellants benefit from tremendous thrust to get the job done. However, they also need to carry fuel and oxidizer to power that incredible upward or forward movement. For example, NASA succeeded in traversing the approximately 240,000 miles from Earth to the moon on chemically propelled spacecrafts. It has also flown rovers to Mars, which averages 225,000,000 miles away from Earth, by way of chemical propulsion. But a human-crewed trip from Earth to the Red Planet on a chemically fueled spaceship would require 1,000-4,000 tons of fuel – an impractical amount.

“There is no perfect propulsion system for all missions out there. You have to select the appropriate propulsion system for the mission that you’re trying to achieve,” Kareem Ahmed, a mechanical engineer at the Propulsion and Energy Research Lab at the University of Central Florida, said.

Nonetheless, SpaceX, the American aerospace manufacturer founded by Elon Musk, seeks to overcome the challenge of sending a chemically propelled rocket to Mars by building infrastructure to refuel in space and manufacture propellant on the surface of Mars. Transferring cryogenic propellants – “gases chilled to subfreezing temperatures and condensed to form highly combustible liquids” – in zero gravity represents a difficult challenge. Also, the company will need a power source on Mars to manufacture propellant.

“I’d caution [SpaceX] to think about the amount of infrastructure in space and infrastructure on the surface of Mars that’s necessary to be successful,” Roger Meyers said. Meyers is a consultant to NASA who co-chaired the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine’s committee that wrote the report, Space Nuclear Propulsion for Human Mars Exploration, released earlier this year.

To minimize the amount of fuel required, the astronauts would need to chart the shortest path between the two planets. Such a path, which relies on orbital mechanics, occurs only once every 26 months. The complete journey, including time for the round-trip flights and waiting time on Mars for optimal planetary realignment, could require more than three years, which would expose the crew to a significant amount of cosmic radiation and increase their lifetime risk of cancer. Also, to state the obvious, the more time astronauts spend in space, the more time there is for something to go wrong.

In theory, nuclear propulsion for space travel will offer two significant advantages over chemical propulsion. First, since nuclear systems are much more efficient, the amount of fuel required for the journey to Mars is practical. Second, without a need to traverse the shortest path, the flight could take off from Earth and Mars anytime without delay. The latter would reduce the length of the round-trip journey and the crew’s exposure to radiation. Still, attaching what amounts to a nuclear reactor to a human-occupied spaceship is not without risks.

The idea of sending nuclear materials into outer space is not new. And unlike Kosmos 954, many instances have been successful. Since 1961, NASA has powered more than 25 space missions with nuclear materials, but not for propulsion. The National Academies’ report released earlier this year recommended that NASA “commit within the year to conducting an extensive and objective assessment of the merits and challenges of using different types of space nuclear propulsion systems, and the report offers a roadmap for developing two different kinds of propulsion systems – nuclear electric and nuclear thermal – for human missions to Mars.

A nuclear electric propulsion system bears some resemblance to a terrestrial power plant. That is, first a fission reactor generates power for electric thrusters. That power positively charges the ions in the gas propellant, after which electric, magnetic, or electro-static fields accelerate the ions. The accelerated ions are then pushed out through a thruster, which propels the spacecraft.

Alternatively, in a nuclear thermal propulsion system, the reactor operates more as a heat exchanger in which a fuel such as liquid hydrogen is first heated to very high temperatures – up to 4,600 degrees Fahrenheit – that is then exhausted through a rocket nozzle to produce thrust. “There are not many materials that can survive those kinds of temperatures,” Anthony Calomino, a materials and structure research engineer at NASA’s Langley Research Center, said.

While nuclear electric propulsion systems do not require extreme temperatures, they face a different hurdle. Nuclear electric systems have six subsystems, including a reactor, shield, power conversion, heat rejection, power management and distribution, and electric propulsion systems. The operating power of all of these subsystems will need to be scaled up by orders of magnitude – and in such a way that they continue to work together – before they are ready for space.

“For nuclear electric propulsion, the challenges are developing a power reactor for space operation. It’s going to be very different than what we do here on earth ,” Calomino said. Meyers said., “It’s really important to invest in both technologies to get to the point where we have enough data to down select. Making a decision too early is not smart if you’re trying to manage the risk.”

Earlier this year, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) awarded three multimillion-dollar contracts to companies for the first phase of a project designed to test nuclear-thermal propulsion systems. Though the National Academies’ report recommends researching both kinds of nuclear propulsion systems, funding to support nuclear thermal research has been more forthcoming than that for nuclear electric.

“It has to do with politics and senators wanting to fund certain centers,” Myers said. “They’re advocating for work in their districts, just like they should be. I would not say it’s a well- informed decision. I would say it’s a ‘let’s get this potentially big program into my district’ decision.”

To be sure, engineers have learned a lot since the crash of Kosmos 954. The scientific community and U.S. government have identified some non-negotiable mitigation measures to protect the crew or, in the event of a launch failure or accident, people on Earth.

Despite the name, nuclear-propelled, human-crewed space-crafts will have one big asterisk; they will be launched with chemical propulsion systems. The nuclear reactor will only operate once the vehicle has left Earth’s atmosphere. This design feature is intended to minimize the risk of releasing radioactive materials in the event of an accident on the launchpad. “NASA’s priority is always safety first – not just safe for the astronauts but for the ground crews that support them as well as the environment,” Calomino said.

Moreover, nuclear propulsion systems on spacecraft will only operate beyond Earth’s atmosphere. Should a nuclear-propelled spacecraft have an accident beyond Earth’s low orbit, it would remain in space rather than fall to Earth where it could harm people or the environment. Likewise, in the event of an accident, the radioactive debris would remain in orbit for tens of thousands of years, during which time it would decay. “[Kosmos 954] showed the importance of using nuclear-safe orbits where you launch to thousands of kilometers rather than 200-300,” Myers said.

Nuclear propulsion systems will incorporate physical shields into their engineering designs to protect the astronauts from onboard radioactive materials, according to Calomino. “We’re following design standards that are used here on Earth for [permissible radiation exposure],” he said. “The bigger problem is protecting the astronauts against cosmic radiation.”

Nuclear propulsion systems will not use nuclear materials that could be diverted for illicit purposes. NASA is pursuing designs that are fueled by low-enriched uranium. This approach is similar to terrestrial reactors. The uranium in use at commercial power plants is typically enriched up to five percent, which is insufficient for nuclear propulsion systems. For space travel, the uranium will need to be enriched up to 19.75 percent, which is the highest enrichment that can still be classified as low enriched. Enrichment that exceeds 20 percent could be used to build a nuclear weapon.

Some argue that the scientific value of a human-crewed Mars mission could be achieved by robots at a much lower cost and risk. Others think that humans, whose role in terrestrial climate change is apparent, should first rehabilitate Earth before colonizing other planets. Still others worry that human microbes could contaminate the Red Planet. Indeed, a majority of Americans – 63 percent according to a 2018 Pew Research Center survey – believe that NASA should prioritize monitoring Earth’s climate system. Only an 18-percent minority said that NASA should prioritize sending humans to Mars.

The United States expects to take at least until 2039 before it starts to conquer this new space frontier. Until then, world citizens are encouraged to engage in that celebrated, if somewhat battered, element of democratic societies – open debate, especially about the still-unanswered technical, medical, environmental, economic, political and ethical questions related to a human journey to Mars on a nuclear-propelled rocket.

– edited from Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, July 28, 2021
PeaceMeal, Sept./October 2021

(In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.)

The focus of U.S. military efforts in outer space should be arms control

Lawrence J. Korb

The idea of a separate military force dedicated to fighting in outer space, which the Trump administration proposed in its defense budget submission for the 2020 fiscal year, is hardly a new one. In 2000, shortly before he took over as secretary of defense, a military-reform commission led by Donald Rumsfeld proposed the creation of such a force. Because of the attacks of 9/11, the Bush administration never embraced the proposal.

In March 2018, however, in a speech at the Marine Corps Air Station in San Diego, President Trump unexpectedly resurrected the idea by publicly suggesting that the Pentagon should create a sixth military branch for space warfighting. This proposal has generated a lot of feedback and has ignited a necessary and overdue debate about how this country should best defend its interests in the space domain.

Much of the public part of that debate has involved organizational structures: Should the United States create a separate military service or elevate the mission now carried out by the U.S. Air Force Space Command, making it into another unified combatant command? Proponents of this vision want to use a Marine Corps model. The Marines are a separate service, even though under the administrative umbrella of the U.S. Navy. Supporters of the second vision favor the U.S. Strategic Command (Stratcom) model.

This structural discussion tends to obscure the more important and central question: How can the United States best protect its interests in outer space without creating a space arms race that could actually jeopardize long-term U.S. economic and national security?

A separate, independent service would be composed of about 16,000 people and be led by two four-star generals, one of whom would be a member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and a new high-level civilian — the Air Force undersecretary (a position the Marines do not have). According to the Congressional Budget Office, this separate force would cost about $3 billion up front and add about $1.3 billion to the Pentagon’s budget each year. Currently, the U.S. budget for space defense is already more than twice what the Russians and Chinese spend together.

There is concern that a separate U.S. space service will not only cost billions more in overhead, but also add another level of bureaucracy and create a larger constituency for ever more funding and armaments in space — this at a time when a peaceful space environment is especially critical for the United States, which depends on its satellites for everything from bank transactions to GPS directions and combat operations.

According to Vice President Mike Pence, who spoke shortly after President Trump’s speech to the Marines, it is not enough to merely have an American presence in space; there must be American dominance there, he said. But others have argued that U.S. security in space depends as much (and probably more) on international cooperation as it does on military dominance, because space is already a global commons that has been militarized.

The Outer Space Treaty of 1967 — a perpetual treaty ratified by 108 countries — forms the basis for international space law. Unfortunately, it bans only weapons of mass destruction in space. As a result, many other types of weapons have been and will continue to be aimed at or placed in space. As the world’s foremost repository for scientific expertise and advanced technology, the United States should stop calling and striving for dominance in space and instead take the lead in developing outer space cooperation to prevent an all-out arms race in outer space.

To put it bluntly, it is time for space arms control.

The United States should work toward establishing an arms control regime for — or, as a minimum, a code of conduct in — space, just as it did for strategic nuclear weapons beginning in the 1960s. The U.N. Conference on Disarmament has repeatedly expressed strong — indeed, almost unanimous — opposition to weaponization of space, and China and Russia have drafted a text to ban space weapons. Unfortunately, the Trump administration has refused even to enter negotiations on such a treaty.

Any model for organizing U.S. military operations in space should be focused on slowing, stopping, and then reversing the militarization of space that has occurred over many decades and intensified in recent years.

Lawrence J. Korb is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress. He previously server on active duty for four years as a Naval Flight Officer and as an assistant secretary of defense from 1981 through 1985. His article is edited from Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, June 28, 2019, and was reprinted in PeaceMeal, July/August 2019.

(In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.)

Space Force: Adding bureaucracy without adding capability

President Trump’s announcement on June 18, 2018, directing the Department of Defense to establish a Space Force as the sixth branch of the military, caught many people outside of the defense community off-guard. Space might be the final frontier, but it is also now on the verge of becoming a well-worn bureaucratic path.

Military and civilian leaders are currently working through the details of proposals to create an independent service dedicated to space within the next two years. This would be the first new military branch since the Air Force spun off from the Army in 1947. Pentagon planners estimate it would cost upwards of $13 billion over the next five years to establish the Space Force as a separate service branch, although history suggests the real cost will be many times that.

The operations of a Space Force would be confined to supporting the missions of the existing services. Viewed in that context, Congress and the Department of Defense should carefully evaluate the desired outcomes of space operations and ensure that each service is adequately organized and resourced to provide its unique and peculiar needs for space support, instead of creating an entirely separate organization. History shows that an independent service devoted to space would add greatly to the Pentagon’s bureaucracy, creating more problems than it would potentially solve, without a corresponding capability increase. The American people would pay a premium for a less effective military force.

In 2016, the Government Accountability Office released a report identifying 60 government offices and entities with a stake in space operations, many of which answer to different people and departments. While this may be the case, creating a new branch of the military to handle all space matters is not the solution. It would open the door to compounding just the sort of problems that persist between the existing services, from competition for resources to lack of coordination.

Ever since splitting off the Air Force into a separate service, the Army has had to fight to get the Air Force to fulfill its federally mandated support role. Air Force leaders have repeatedly failed to adequately provide for missions assigned to them and instead used the money to fund their own projects while clamoring for more. Rather than increasing effectiveness and efficiency, the central-ization of military aviation resulted in even more duplication.

Human beings are likely a long way off from “Star Wars”-style battles in space. For the time being, the military applications in space serve to support pursuits here on Earth, whether that’s through communications or surveillance. To most effectively accomplish these support functions, there should be as few bureaucratic barriers as possible between them and the corres-ponding combat forces.

A bureaucracy is the center of every military service. All bureaucracies share several common behaviors. They all hold self-preservation as their first goal. This is followed closely by the intimately related self-justification. As a result, they are always on the lookout for opportunities to inflate their contributions which they can then use to fight threats to their existence.

Experience shows that an independent Space Force will work to first carve out its own unique identity. Its leaders will insist on having their own service schools, sources of supply, uniforms and bases — even as Pentagon leaders have repeatedly sought the freedom to close bases they believe are unnecessary. Experience also suggests they will claim that the rapid pace of technological development will necessitate special acquisition procedures and seek broad exemptions from the existing regulations, which would greatly hinder Congress’s ability to exercise its oversight func-tions. This has already begun: Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson signed a memo on September 14, 2018, with her proposal to establish the Space Force, touting the current Air Force Space Rapid Capabilities Office’s special authorities and exemptions granted by Congress, allowing it to work outside of the normal federal acquisition system. If anything, due to the anticipated cost and potential failure rate, acquisitions programs of this kind should receive more, not less, Congressional oversight.

The Pentagon’s response to the IED threat in Iraq and Afghanistan provides a useful case in point. Once soldiers and Marines began suffering more casualties from roadside bombs than they did from more sophisticated weapons, the Pentagon stood up the Joint Improvised Explosive Device Defeat Organi-zation to find a solution. This office, in the model of other temporary government programs, quickly morphed and ballooned in size, going from an initial 12-person Army task force into a staff of 1,900 with a $21-billion budget. The services also continued to use their own efforts to devise solutions to defeat IEDs. This showed that even if the Department of Defense creates a new organization, it doesn’t necessarily mean the services will yield total control of their own programs. All of the offices working the counter-IED problem cranked out more than 1,300 different initiatives. In the end, nothing proved as effective as a good bomb- sniffing dog.

The real power in the military is in control of the budget. The way to create the kind of cohesiveness necessary to establish a force capable of conducting combined arms operations is to ensure that a single person ultimately has the ability to make policy decisions which can then be enforced through control over the budget. In theory, the secretary of defense has this authority, but when programs span separate services with their own budget lines, that power becomes diluted. As is true with all things related to war, the best policy is to keep things as simple as possible. Adding another service would add an entire new level of complexity and friction to an endeavor that already has too much.

So far, plenty of skepticism endures in Congress about the need for a new military branch. The officials calling for an independent Space Force will doubtless continue to claim this domain holds the key to victory in any future conflict. But, just like with aviation, space operations will not be decisive on their own. Their true potential can only be realized as supporting efforts of operations on the sea and especially on the ground. When viewed in that light, it only makes sense for the commanders of the sea or ground forces to also be in command of the supporting space forces.

The Space Force leaders will likely only work with the other services when forced to by an outside entity like the secretary of defense or Congress, and even then, as history shows, the resulting cooperation is likely to be half-hearted and will vanish as soon as the external pressure disappears.

Victory in war comes through the cooperation of all arms toward a singular goal. The United States should be taking steps to reduce barriers to this kind of cooperation, not creating more.

– edited from an article by Dan Grazier in The Defense Monitor, November/December
PeaceMeal, January/February 2019

(In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.)