President Donald Trump's administration is pushing to form a U.S. Space Force, a new military branch, but how would that agency differ from the Air Force Space Command, which already oversees much of the country's defense assets in space?
In a speech at the Pentagon Thursday (Aug. 9), Vice President Mike Pence revealed a detailed plan to create the Space Force, which Trump proposed earlier this yearn. The Space Force swill meet "the rising security threats our nation faces in space today and in the future," Pence said. If approved by Congress, the Space Force could be ready by 2020, he added.
But the proposed Space Force is not the United States' first foray into militarizing space. [Space Force Logos by the Trump Campaign]
The first U.S. rockets were launched by the U.S. military, and NASA's first astronauts were military officers, Pence said. And in 1982, the U.S. Air Force established the Air Force Space Command (AFSPC) to provide "space capabilities" for spaceflight missions, navigation, satellite communications, missile warning and space control, according to AFSPC's website.)
The AFSPC has units at Air Force bases all over the United States. These units provide space capabilities including "services, facilities and range safety control for the conduct of DOD [Department of Defense], NASA and commercial launches" of satellties, according to AFSPC's website.
But if the AFSPC is already dedicated to space, why do we need a Space Force?
In an interview with Space.com, Michael Dodge, an assistant professor in the Department of Space Studies at the University of North Dakota, likened the creation of a Space Force with the birth of the Air Force in the 20th century.
The early version of the U.S. Air Force existed as the U.S. Army Air Corps, an aerial warfare sector of the U.S. Army. But as planes continued to advance technologically and find their way into mainstream travel, "Congress decided they needed to have a new branch of the military," Dodge said. The country needed a branch that could "address issues unique to this domain." The Air Force became the fifth branch of the U.S. armed forces in 1947.
The Space Force would essentially serve the same purpose, but for space. Dodge said it would "free up the Air Force to focus on what it does best," as the new branch addressed issues unique to space.
Dodge noted that this space-oriented, sixth military branch makes the most sense now. " [O]ur assets are so critical in outer space and everything that we do is so dependent on outer space that we need a new force capable of focusing on that domain by itself," he said."
However, Dodge added, one driving force to create a Space Force now instead of sometime in the future is political.
Pence called out the military activities of Russia and China in his speech at the Pentagon today. Both countries have tested anti-satellite technology in the past and are actively pursuing hypersonic weapons that surpass current missile-defense capabilities, Pence said.
Dodge noted that creating a Space Force now, instead of waiting for the future, would allow the U.S. to "Keep pace with and [go] beyond the abilities of potential adversaries to the United States." In other words, instead of waiting until there is a need for a U.S. military presence in space, the Space Force would beat other countries to the punch, paving the way.
In June, President Trump said that it wasn't enough for the U.S. to have a presence in space. "We must have American dominance in space."
But Trump's Space Force would add more than just a competitive presence in space or an additional focus on protection of U.S. space assets. Aside from being a new military branch, a Space Force at the Pentagon today would have a few features that would set it apart from previous U.S. military space efforts, like AFSPC, Pence said.
The vice president mentioned four major, fundamental steps that the U.S. government will take to create a Space Force. These include a new U.S. Space Command to unify leadership and ensure a smooth, military integration; a Space Development Agency to focus on research and advancing space technologies and "war-fighting capabilities"; new government structures to solidify the branch's futuree; and "war fighters."
This fourth addition could be what most differentiates the Space Force from the AFSPC. The Space Force will have, as Pence described, "an elite group of joint war fighters specializing in the domain of space." This could be a military astronaut corps, though the specific roles of these war fighters have yet to be defined.