US President Donald Trump, who never rests until he finds the most catching turn of phrase, released another shocking message—on June 18, when he addressed a meeting of the National Space Council, he announced that he would direct the Department of Defense (DoD) to “immediately begin the process necessary to establish a space force”.
If Trump’s cult fantasy comes true, the Space Force will become a sixth branch of the United States Armed Forces, adding to the Army, Navy, Marines, Air Force and the Coast Guard. It will also be the first newly-created branch in over 100 years since 1915.
How can Trump start to build a space force right now? Some critics said that Trump’s big plan was nothing else but talking big, which was commonplace; some believed this was Trump’s version of the “space race” with the purpose of deviating China’s economic growth from its current track; whereas some thought this was the US military strategic layout for a space war in the future.
What is Trump’s real intention?
Trump’s version of “space race”?
Trump’s “Space Force” plan sparked national suspicion and resistance in the US since its announcement.
Gen. David L. Goldfein, Chief of Staff of the US Air Force, believed such an act will separate the Air Force Space Command (AFSC), which is currently part of the Air Force, into two forces and eventually weaken America’s space forces.
Gen. Goldfein argues that “any move that actually ends up separating space as opposed to integrating space, I would argue, is a move in the wrong direction”.
“This is a dumb idea. The Air Force does this already. That is their job,” the retired NASA astronaut and Navy Captain Mark Kelly tweeted, who expressed that the Space Force was totally unnecessary. “What is next, we move submarines to the 7th branch and call it the ‘under-the-sea force?”.
Meanwhile, America’s internet users mocked Trump’s “Space Force Plan”: some tweeted in the voice of Darth Vader from Star Wars, replacing the villain’s head with Trump’s. Some modified Trump’s famous saying to: “We want to build a space force, and let aliens pay for it!” as well as “Make Saturn great again!”
Not to mention that the plan can only be implemented after the Congress approves it. The Foreign Policy pointed out that: “there is more opposition to a space force than support for it.” Even Secretary of Defense James N. Mattis expressed his disagreement with the Space Force.
Despite the domestic opposition, why does Trump still cling to this immature idea of a space force? In fact, the “Space Force” plan reminded us about Reagan’s “Star Wars Program”.
The “Star Wars Program” officially known as the “Strategic Defense Initiative” (SDI), was proposed by the then US President Ronald Reagan in the late Cold War. The purpose was to “attack the enemy’s intercontinental ballistic missiles and spacecraft in outer space by various means to prevent the hostile countries from launching nuclear strikes against the US and its allies.” The planned budget was as high as one trillion US dollars, but it was eventually abandoned after the end of the Cold War.
However, the “Star Wars Program” has always been questioned because it was believed that the purpose of it was to hit the economic strength of the Soviet Union. The United States’ Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) stated in the “Possible Soviet Responses to the US Strategic Defense Initiative” in 1984: “If the Soviet Union tries to deploy a new type of advanced system while continuing its military modernization, it will face enormous economic pressure and the leadership will face serious challenges.”
It is hard to assume that President Trump may lack understanding of Reagan’s “Star Wars Program” since both of them are the Republican hardline presidents. Hence, one cannot rule out the possibility that Trump wants to use the “New Star Wars” to persuade other countries to deviate from the path of peaceful development.
However, Trump’s plan may not be a “captain’s call”—in fact, his support for space forces has been long-standing.
Wu Fei, editor-in-chief of the Communications and Public Diplomacy magazine, pointed out that the establishment of a space force was actually the result of the Pentagon discussions over the past several years. “Under the Obama administration, the US government had the idea of establishing an air and space force, but Obama was not yet able to integrate all forces,” Wu said.
Revolutionary Influence of the “Command of the Space Power”
Long before Trump was elected, his vice presidential candidate, Michael Richard Pence once proposed to rebuild the National Space Council. Then in 2017, Trump successfully restarted the agency that had been suspended for more than two decades. In May 2018, Trump also mentioned: “We’re doing a tremendous amount of work in space - maybe we need a new force, we’ll call it the space force.”
Moreover, the proposal to establish the “Space Force” was not proposed for the first time. In 2017, two senior members of the US Congress, Mike Rogers and Jim Cooper, led the move to put the section, “which calls for the establishment of a separate Space Corps within the Department of the Air Force” in the National Defense Authorization Act of the year.
Just like Trump said, “It is not enough to merely have an American presence in space. We must have American dominance in space.”
The “Star Wars Program” was abandoned more than two decades ago partly due to the greatly reduced military pressure after the dissolution of the Soviet Union; another reason was the lack of advanced space technology at that time.
In February 2018, Space X, a US company, launched a “Falcon Heavy” rocket, and the two boosters were landed successfully on land and recovered. A leap forward in rocket recovery technology and the development of a series of aerospace technologies may provide an opportunity to declare to the world that it is about time for the development of air power.
The most important thing in the meaning of the “Command of the Space Power” theory is to broaden the imagination of modern warfare. Throughout history, the breakthrough of every military theory has revolutionized wars and influenced the geopolitically diplomatic situation, thus it helped generations of countries to become world powers.
The Influence of Sea Power Upon History by Alfred Thayer Mahan provided a theoretical basis for Britain and the United States to dominate the world with the ocean. Sir Halford John Mackinder’s Heartland Theory guided the geographical expansion of Germany and the former Soviet Union.
Wang Yanan, editor-in-chief of the Aerospace Knowledge Magazine, believed that holding the command of space power would enable countries to defend them quickly from hostile countries. Existing conventional firepower projectiles, whether land-based, sea-based or aerial bombing, have to launch attack from abroad, which is often difficult to break through the enemy’s defense network. In contrast, the air and space power can strike attack on the target with precision from the strategic height outside the enemy’s defense network.
“Whether it is a particle beam weapon or a laser weapon, the launch from orbital space can be ten times or even twenty times faster,” Wang said. “If you attack any point on the earth at this speed, anti-missile interception we have mastered as of today is impossible.”
In addition to the quick strike, another strategic significance of “command of the space power” lies in the rapid delivery of personnel. For example, the X-37B Space Plane that was once developed by the United States was capable of sending people from the height of orbital space to the combat location. This may be the transport mode for future wars.
“With the current projection capabilities of the US military, it can quickly deliver an infantry division within 5,000 to 10,000 kilometers. However, if it is from orbital space, the US military may be able to deliver a capable combat unit to any point on the earth within one hour,” explained Wang.
The greatest strategic role of air and space power is to destroy satellite communications equipment and satellite detection equipment of the enemy countries. In modern warfare, satellites are the eyes and ears of the military.
As early as in the Gulf War, the US military used 14 communications satellites and 90% of the battle coverage sent back to the Pentagon by the front commandeering officers was transmitted via satellites. With the help of communication satellites and reconnaissance satellites, the US Air Force destroyed the transport lines in Iraq in a very short period of time.
As mankind increasingly rely on satellites for communications and investigations, mastering the “command of the space power” means mastering the capabilities to destroy enemy’s agents at any time. “Space warfare does not necessarily aim at casualties but disrupting and even destroying your communications equipment,” Wu said.
How will China Respond to Trump’s “Space Force” Plan?
Wang believes that one of the difficulties the US faces in the development of the air and space power is the lack of real combat experience.
Throughout the history of the US, the establishment of each warfare service has gone through large numbers of trials in actual combat. For example, the US Army established the Army Air Corps in 1926. However, it was not until 1947—after the World War II—that the US Air Force became an independent service. In contrast, Trump’s plan to establish a “Space Force” seems too hastily.
“When the US Air Force was established, both the equipment and the theory of tactical strategy had been completed,” said Wang. “But at present, the US wants to set up a space force. The so-called combat theory is merely a tactical idea with few substantial elements that can support the space force.”
“It is precisely for this reason that China does not need to rush to respond to the signal that Trump sent,” said Wang.
However, not responding to Trump’s signal does not mean that China should do nothing in air and space. As a matter of fact, China already has its own clear development guideline in place and does not need to shift according to Trump’s movements.
China’s anti-satellite technology is an example. As early as 2007, China launched missiles and destroyed an obsolete weather satellite FY-1C. Although the technology applied by China was in the peaceful region, it ensured China’s air and space defense capabilities.
The other example is the building of orbital maneuverable space platforms. Wang believed that China should establish its ability to quickly enter orbital space. Once this maneuverable space platform is available, it will be able to counteract the enemy’s military operations in the air and space.
“With the technical equipment and competent building, it is actually possible to seek secure space for China,” said Wang.
Disclaimer: The author is Zhuang Junlang. The article is published on infzm.com. It is translated from Chinese into English and edited by the China Military online. The information, ideas or opinions appearing in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the views of eng.chinamil.com.cn. Chinamil.com.cn does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same. If the article carries photographs or images, we do not vouch for their authenticity.