Trump's Space Force Is No Joke
November 20, 2018
In These Times & Sputnik International & POLITICO/Lockheed Martin
In the rush to heap scorn upon the Trump administration, the president's critics sometimes miss the forest for the trees. Critics mocked the idea as "ridiculous," "stupid" and part of an "imaginary space war." "There's no threat in space! Who are we fighting?" But "war in space" is no joke. For all intents and purposes, a space force already exists. International conflict in space is no longer a plotline ripped from a sci-fi paperback. A space war is becoming more and more likely.
Trump's Space Force Is No Joke
China, Russia, and the US are already militarizing space.
Here's why that's dangerous
Branko Marcetic / In These Times
(October 19, 2018) -- In the rush to heap scorn upon the Trump administration, the president's critics sometimes miss the forest for the trees. Such was the case in June when Donald Trump announced the creation of the socalled Space Force, a sixth branch of the US military.
Critics mocked the idea as "ridiculous," "stupid" and part of an "imaginary space war." "There's no threat in space! Who are we fighting?" asked Stephen Colbert. Vox wondered if the Space Force would carry lightsabers.
It was easy to miss that the idea is not uniquely Trumpian -- and poses a real threat. For all intents and purposes, a space force already exists in the form of the Air Force Space Command (AFSPC), a 36,000-person division of the Air Force that's been operating since 1982.
Where Trump's proposal differs is that it forms an entirely new military branch devoted to space, something James Clay Moltz, associate professor at the Naval Postgraduate School and author of The Politics of Space, says is "largely unprecedented."
According to Vice President Mike Pence, the Space Force would include a new centralized command structure for space operations that would take over satellite-based military tasks such as surveillance and navigation for ground troops, as well as monitoring and tracking missile launches, all currently performed by the AFSPC.
It'll also take charge of any offensive capabilities developed for space, such as anti-satellite weapons (ASATs), introduce an "elite group of joint war-fighters" to support the rest of the armed forces, and oversee a new agency dedicated to developing "cutting-edge warfighting capabilities" for space.
The proposal is viewed by the space-savvy in the military as "either unwise, unnecessary or premature," Moltz says -- and almost certainly expensive. It's on the basis of its potential wastefulness and redundancy that critics such as Defense Secretary James Mattis, ex-astronauts Mark and Scott Kelly, Air Force secretary Heather Wilson and other members of the military have assailed the idea.
But there's a much bigger debate to be had. International conflict in space is no longer a plotline ripped from a sci-fi paperback. A space war is becoming more and more likely.
THE GEOPOLITICS OF SPACE
US military dominance in space is really about maintaining military dominance back on Earth. Space infrastructure, particularly satellites, is key to the US military's global reach, servicing everything from navigation to weapons targeting to communications. A 2018 report from the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) trumpets: "Space capabilities enable the American way of warfare."
The global space arms race began with the Cold War, when both the United States and the USSR began testing ground-based anti-satellite (ASAT) weapons. Reagan's Air Force became the first to test one on a spacecraft, destroying an old observation satellite in 1985. (Reagan also, infamously, attempted to put in place the so-called "Star Wars" program, which would have used spacebased lasers to shoot down incoming Soviet nuclear warheads.)
The 1990 Gulf War -- known now as the first "space war" -- made US empire and satellites inseparable. With 24-hour satellite support, US forces could not only communicate across broad channels, but map out terrain, observe and predict enemy actions, and use new guided, "smart" weapons that were, in theory, less indiscriminate. Satellites make today's drone warfare possible.
While the United States and Russia have adhered to what Laura Grego, senior scientist in the Global Security Program of the Union of Concerned Scientists, calls an "unofficial moratorium" on stationing dedicated weapons in space (as opposed to ground-based systems that target spacecraft), the United States -- and, increasingly, its rivals -- continue to invest in other forms of space militarization.
The United States leads the way in satellite capacity and space military technology, and has opposed past demilitarization efforts. In 2006, the George W. Bush administration blocked a UN resolution on arms control in space, issuing a National Space Policy that pledged to resist "new legal regimes or other restrictions," including arms control agreements, on US use of space. In response to this and other steps by the United States, other countries have moved to shore up their own space capabilities.
China tested an ASAT in 2007, and both it and Russia have increasingly invested in counter-space capabilities, such as ASAT technology and jamming GPS receivers. China and Russia's advances left Washington spooked. In 2014, the Pentagon invested an extra $2 billion into classified offensive space programs. In 2015, the "emerging threats" of Russia and China were used to justify a $3 billion add-on for national security space capabilities, as officials openly talked about fighting a war in space.
We're still a long way, however, from ray guns and X-wing dogfights. While in-orbit ASAT weapons exist, for the time being any space conflict would be fought from the Earth. For example, all three countries have capacity to disrupt enemy satellites by jamming them with their own, or to hack into a satellite's ground operation.
But increased reliance on satellites for warfare -- not to mention everyday life -- opens up "a critical vulnerability," warns the CSIS. Space infrastructure is fragile, vulnerable to hacking and able to be brought down by other spacecraft intentionally ramming into it, by ground-based ASAT missiles or even by loose pieces of debris.
Because space is unfamiliar terrain, nations don't know how to interpret others' behavior. According to Cassandra Steer, an independent consultant on space security and former executive director of the McGill University Centre for Research on Air and Space Law, when the United States and its allies have run war games centered on space, they can quickly escalate to nuclear war.
"If one major power thinks the other is about to take out its satellites, it could take reciprocal action, or even launch a conventional or nuclear attack," says William Hartung, director of the Arms and Security Project at the Center for International Policy.
And as space becomes increasingly cluttered with spacecraft, the chance of accidental calamity increases. Pentagon officials warn that space is becoming increasingly crowded. The US alone operates 859 government and commercial satellites, nearly one in five of which are military.
For the first time, two satellites collided in February 2009, producing a "debris cloud" that added to the approximately 500,000 pieces of debris currently in orbit, threatening to tear through spacecraft and add yet more debris to this total. The destruction of spacecraft by ASAT tests, too, adds to the debris.
The more debris in orbit, the greater the threat to the nonmilitary use of space that makes modern life possible. Traffic lights, banking systems, telephones, the internet, plane travel -- all rely on satellites whose destruction could suddenly leave us in the dark.
"If we have no information and we're in a blackout, people hit the panic button," Steer says. "And that may mean an actual weapons button."
BACK TO EARTH
Given these dangers, many diplomats and activists are pushing to declare space a weapon-free global commons. But there's been little movement on any legally binding agreement. Although "weapons of mass destruction" have been banned in space since the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, international regulation is sparse.
In 2008, Russia and China put forward a draft treaty on the Prevention of the Placement of Weapons in Outer Space (PPWT), which lacked a specific verification regime and included a carve-out for the kind of ground-based ASAT weapons both countries had been testing. Still, flawed as it was, Project Ploughshares called the PPWT "undoubtedly the most substantive effort thus far" to make weapon-free space a matter of international law. The United States, however, said it couldn't support such a "fundamentally flawed" proposal.
Many analysts say a treaty is unlikely in the near future, and look to other avenues of demilitarization.
A more realistic solution, Steer says, is non-binding instruments like guidelines that regulate conduct in space, which can work due to political buy-in and reciprocity. These norms might include, for example, best practices on approaching another country's spacecraft.
The United States could be amenable to such agreements. John Hyten, commander of the US Strategic Command and a proponent of the Space Force, has urged the creation of "international norms of behavior in space."
"Very few military off icers are enthusiastic about weaponizing space," James Moltz says. "That said, many in the military are skeptical that war and weapons can be kept from space forever."
The deeply vested interests involved -- interests that have the ear of US politicians -- also make it difficult to roll back or halt the militarization of space.
The National Space Council, a group of cabinet memberswho shape US space policy, has a "users' advisory group" whose members include the CEOs of Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Northrop Grumman and other corporations [Emphasis added.].
The Aerospace Industries Association (AIA), a trade group that counts these and other companies as members, funded the 2018 CSIS report calling for government investment in national security space assets, and has called for greater national security investment in space at the annual Space Symposium.
The Symposium, now in its 34th year, embodies the close ties between industry and government on space policy. Co-sponsored by the AIA and its defense contractor members, the Symposium provides an opportunity for industry to network with representatives of think tanks and educational institutions, foreign leaders, and military, national security and other government officials.
This year's event in April saw speeches from Vice President Mike Pence, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, US senators and Air Force officials. The current AFSPC commander, Lee Levy, declared that plans for warfighting in space were no longer simply a discussion, and that the US military needed to "gain and maintain space superiority."
Industry influence extends to the politicians who advocate further space militarization. Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Ala.), reportedly instrumental in selling Trump on the Space Force, has received hundreds of thousands of dollars from the defense industry. Reps. Doug Lamborn (R-Colo.) and Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), both big boosters of a more aggressive space policy, represent districts populated by the defense industry and have raked in similarly large donations.
The Space Force contributes to this build-up, further entrenching militarization and feeding money to defense contractors. "President Trump's enthusiasm for the Space Force," Hartung says, "creates a danger that existing norms, like keeping weapons out of space, are more likely to be set aside." He says the resulting space arms race "could spark a general war."
Yet before efforts to rein in weaponization can gain momentum, public awareness must be raised, a task made harder by widespread media derision of Trump's Space Force proposal. Conflict in space is a clear and present danger. We need to take it seriously.
Branko Marcetic is a staff writer at Jacobin magazine and a regular contributor to In These Times. He hails from Auckland, New Zealand, where he received his Masters in American history, a fact that continues to puzzle everyone who meets him.
Creation of US Space Force May Cost Less Than $10Bln - Pentagon
MOSCOW (November 16, 2018) -- US Deputy Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan has said that it may take the United States less than $10 billion, or probably half that sum, to create a space force, The Hill newspaper reported.
"A single digit, not a double digit . . . Might be lower than five, it could be lower," Shanahan told reporters when asked about the possible cost of the Space Force in billions of dollars, as quoted by The Hill outlet on Thursday.
The statement comes as US President Donald Trump said last month that the United States was creating a space force to catch up with China and Russia.
The US defence budget for the fiscal year 2019, which began on October 1, includes the re-establishment of the US Space Command. It also prescribes the US Missile Defense Agency to begin work on deploying systems to track and intercept ballistic missiles in space. According to the document, the development and deployment of a Sustainable Space Sensor Architecture should be completed before 2023, while the missile interceptor system may be deployed later.
According to a memo by US Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson that was leaked in September, the United States may need nearly $13 billion to create this new branch of the military within the project's first five years.
Space Force Price Tag Shrinks
Bryan Bender and Jacqueline Klimas / POLITICO & Lockheed Martin
(November 16, 2018) -- PRE-FLIGHT BRIEFING
PENTAGON: WE CAN SELL THE SPACE FORCE DESPITE DEMOCRATIC HEADWINDS.
In the face of multiple predictions that the Democratic takeover of the House could ground the Trump administration's proposed Space Force, the Pentagon doesn't seem so worried.
"I don't think so," Deputy Defense Secretary Pat Shanahan told reporters Thursday when asked directly if the opposition to a new military branch from leading Democrats means trouble. "Here's what I feel very confident about: the proposal we're going to carry forward makes sense."
One of the harshest Space Force critics is Rep. Adam Smith, who's widely expected to lead the House Armed Services Committee and has raised concerns about the price tag of a new bureaucracy. But Shanahan said that after meeting with the progressive Democrat from Washington State the Pentagon is "really diligently putting together a proposal that can withstand the cost scrutiny questions on Capitol Hill."
Indeed, Shanahan indicated Thursday that the Space Force will cost considerably less over five years than the whopping $13 billion that Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson estimated earlier this year -- in the "single-digit" billions, he said, and possibly even less than $5 billion. The Pentagon's formal legislative proposal to establish a sixth branch of the military is due to the White House Office of Management and Budget by Dec. 1.
But the Pentagon better get its story straight first. Wilson on Thursday stuck to her higher $13 billion cost estimate, seemingly placing herself publicly at odds with the Pentagon leadership. "What we put forward was the cost estimate to implement a standalone department," she said at the Defense One Summit.
"Our cost estimate that we gave to a lot of people in the Pentagon in September was the cost of a fully fledged standalone department as well as a unified combatant command." But it's not fully clear what is included in Shanahan's estimate in terms of personnel or infrastructure.
Todd Harrison at the Center for Strategic and International Studies is planning to release his own detailed cost estimate for the Space Force -- to include the number of personnel, annual budget, and bases.
And Coming Soon:
A new Space Command and Space Development Agency. The Pentagon is planning to stand up its new US Space Command by March, Shanahan reported, while the leader of a new Space Development Agency could be named before the end of this year. Yet the Pentagon still doesn't quite know what the new acquisition outfit will look like.
FCC MOVES TO UNLEASH NEW SATELLITE COMMUNICATIONS
The Federal Communications Commission convened on Thursday to grapple with a series of space-related issues on its agenda for "Space Month."
The agency announced it's "authorizing SpaceX to construct, deploy, and operate a new very-low-Earth orbit constellation of more than 7,000 satellites," according to a announcement, while "the Commission's action will allow Kepler to offer global connectivity for the Internet of Things, especially sensors and other intelligent devices." It also granted Telesat's request for access to the US market and took action that "facilitates the provision of new and innovative satellite broadband services in the United States by LeoSat, including high-speed connectivity for enterprises and underserved communities."
The agency on Thursday also approved new steps to alleviate the scourge of space junk, including seeking public comment for new rules to improve satellite design and disposal procedures and collision avoidance strategies. It's all part of an effort to update 2004 guidelines that require satellite communications companies to have a plan for dealing with damaged or out-of-service satellites.
But one Republican commissioner questioned whether the agency should really be wading into the issue at all. "Are we the right expert agency to make these assessments?" asked Commissioner Brendan Carr, suggesting that other federal agencies such as the new Office of Space Commerce in the Commerce Department may be better suited. "We can respond by saying, 'Hey, we've got a lot of smart people here, and this isn't rocket science' -- except it is. It is literally rocket science we're engaging in. "
Democratic Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel took issue with the remarks. "Instead of moving forward aggressively -- as our draft effort contemplated -- we backtrack and add confusing language about whether or not this work should even continue in these halls," she said. More from the FCC public meeting can be found here.
TO THE MOON -- VIA CAMBRIDGE, MASS.
Draper Laboratory, the non-profit company that grew of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the 1960s, bills itself as "the world's leading space company that's been to the moon," as Jennifer Jenson, Draper's vice president for national security and space, puts it. It developed the guidance and navigation systems for the Apollo moon missions and is now in high demand for its space expertise -- not only from NASA but a slew of commercial space companies who are planning ambitious space missions of their own.
"We're the only ones around that has" been to the moon, Jensen, a retired Army colonel and acquisition officer, tells us. "So these commercial companies frequently seek us out for the navigation and guidance system."
One new partner is the Japanese company iSpace, which it has teamed with to compete for NASA's new lunar lander program. "They sought us out as a strategic partner," Jensen explains. "We brought General Atomics in on that as well. We are doing the power propulsion element for several of the bidders. We have several in the making right now. There is a lot of activity.
Another partner is Sierra Nevada Corporation on its Dream Chaser space plane. "We provide the navigation and guidance software in the flight computers for that mission," according to Jensen. "We just completed a successful demonstration to NASA of that software in the last week in September. That was a major milestone to get through. It went absolutely perfect."
As a non-profit not reliant on government budgets, Draper has "flexibility because we can do any type of contracts," she says. "We can do completely commercial contracts. We can do military contracts. We have all sorts of customers and business models. At the same time, our core is we are here as a nonprofit for national interest and security, so we keep that in mind in everything we do."
Jensen spoke about Draper's long legacy of technological innovations -- including the atomic clock, the first fly-by-wire aircraft, and more recently the solar protection for the avionics on NASA's Parker Probe -- as well as some of its new partnerships with NASA and private firms. Read the full interview here.
NASA LOBBIES CANADA TO JOIN MOON PLANS
NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine took his roadshow to Ottawa this week to urge Canada to sign on to NASA's plans to explore the moon, including its ambitious Gateway program to build a lunar space station.
"We want you involved in our return to the moon in a big way," Bridenstine told the Canadian Aerospace Summit on Wednesday. "We're going to need a lot of help and we want Canada to be a major player."
He specifically highlighted the robotic Canadarm systems that have been used on NASA's Space Shuttle program and to help assemble and to transfer cargo on the International Space Station in orbit. "We certainly would love to see robotics on the Gateway," Bridenstine said.
But is Canada in or out? It's not that simple, as our colleague Alex Panetta reported this week for POLITICO Pro Canada. Canada has signaled its interest but not ponied up the dough. "What's not yet known: Whether the Trudeau government will deliver the estimated C$1 billion to C$2 billion it would take to fund the robotics program over two decades."
FLY ME TO THE MOON
One artist who wants to get a seat on an upcoming SpaceX trip around the moon is taking his case to the public. Photographer Jon Carmichael, who has recently snapped some spectacular eclipse photos, plans to build momentum for his candidacy starting Nov. 23 via 1,100 billboards across the United States.
"Jon is trying to qualify for a seat on the SpaceX flight in 2023 on the BFR (Big Falcon Rocket) being sponsored by Japanese entrepreneur and billionaire Yusaku Maezawa -- the first private customer," says the announcement. "Maezawa has launched the #dearMoon project to choose and invite artists from around the world to fly with him and to then create works of art after the mission inspired by the flight."
So if you are in Times Square or near the NASDAQ Building in New York at 7:00 pm on Black Friday, be sure to look up.
MARS WILL LIKELY HAVE TO WAIT
A FEW MORE DECADES -- AT LEAST
That's what former astronaut Thomas Jones, who flew four missions on the space shuttle, predicted this week at a discussion hosted by the National Press Club. That's because current spending levels are nowhere near enough to overcome both the biomedical and technological challenges of sending humans into deep space for the years long journey -- exposed to more radiation than astronauts traditionally encounter in an entire career.
"I'm sure there'll be volunteers to accept that radiation risk, but NASA can't accept those kinds of lower standards," Jones said. "Private companies can do whatever they want, but if you want to be alive when you get there and healthy...you want a solution and that's either shielding of the spacecraft or getting there more quickly.
The first thing NASA should be researching, he believes, are nuclear propulsion systems to speed up the journey. He also urged the space agency to invest in artificial gravity to identify new ways to forestall the cardiovascular and skeletal deterioration, weakening of the immune system, and vision changes caused by zero gravity that could leave astronauts who make it to Mars unfit to carry out their mission.
Discovering life on the Red Planet will ultimately require humans, Richard Davis, assistant director for science and exploration in NASA's science mission directorate, told the Press Club event. Robotic rovers have expanded NASA's knowledge of Mars and can be used to help prepare for a crewed mission but they can only do so much. "If there's life on the planet, we're probably not going to be able to find it until humans are there," he predicted.
"But," cautioned Jones, "we're going to arrive on Mars when we're technically ready to go, and I think there's about 20 to 25 years of homework ahead of us."
QUOTE OF THE WEEK
"I know I've made some very poor decisions recently, but I can give you my complete assurance that my work will be back to normal. I've still got the greatest enthusiasm and confidence in the mission. And I want to help you."
-- HAL 9000, in "2001: A Space Odyssey."
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