There has been much discussion of the military in space. With today’s spy satellites, asteroid threats, commercial GPS systems, commercial space launches, and other concerns it does seem like the right time to focus attention on both the outer limits of Earth’s atmosphere and places where “no one has gone before” to quote the old Star Trek tagline.
In 2019, the United States took a step closer to the Star Trek future with the establishment of U.S. Space Command, an entity that is not a separate branch of military service, but one that could pave the way for one in the future.
U.S. Space Command is the latest addition to a group of Unified Combatant Commands that includes U.S. Cyber Command, U.S. Special Operations Command, and many others.
The Earliest Days Of Space Command
The creation of a Space Command isn’t a new idea; it was actually created as a functioning entity in 1985 under President Ronald Reagan. Two years prior in 1983, America had announced intentions to focus more on space warfare via the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI); a missile defense system that brought much controversy and debate. Some derisively called SDI “Star Wars,” and there were many arguments over the effectiveness of the military hardware proposed and delivered as part of SDI.
Reagan created the Space Command in 1985 with (presumably) the same idea as when re-established in 2019. The need for a coordinating agency that would oversee space operations for all branches of service may have changed since Reagan’s day, but the necessity for having coordination, inter-agency cooperation, and DoD-wide planning for space operations is still important.
Reagan’s version of Space Command wouldn’t survive 21st century reorganization efforts. It was caught up in a Post 9/11 reorganization move in 2002 and did not survive the transition but was later revived as an idea in 2018 via a Presidential policy directive (Space Policy Directive 4) and has been in development since that time.
U.S. Space Command Goes Operational
General Joe Dunford, the outgoing Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, announced the official starting date for U.S. Space Command as August 29, 2019. This is the first time a new combatant command has been declared fully operational since the creation of Africa Command in 2009.
The leader of U.S. Space Command, also known as SPACECOM, will oversee 87 units with missions ranging from satellite operations, early missile warning, space control, and space support. More than 600 troops have been reassigned or otherwise taken from U.S. Strategic Command positions and placed in SPACECOM.
DoD leadership have gone on the record stating that SPACECOM is a vital part of the DoD’s efforts to gain military advantages in space, and SPACECOM isn’t the only new entity being planned at the federal level. SPACECOM is one of three entities that have been getting more headlines as progress is made in their establishment.
Ending The Confusion Over U.S. Space Command, Space Force, and the Space Development Agency
In some circles, there is much confusion over the differences between several proposed space-related federal entities. There are three that are actually in the works at the time of this writing, and none of the three operates in quite the same way.
U.S. Space Command
The U.S. Space Command, announced as a functioning entity on August 29, 2019, is one of eleven Unified Combatant Commands. The entire list of those commands includes:
- CENTCOM: U.S. Central Command, MacDill Air Force Base, Tampa, Florida
- AFRICOM: U.S. Africa Command, Stuttgart, Germany
- EUCOM: U.S. European Command, Stuttgart, Germany
- NORTHCOM: U.S. Northern Command, Peterson AFB, Colorado
- INDOPACOM: U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, Camp H.M. Smith, Hawaii
- SOUTHCOM: U.S. Southern Command, Miami, Florida
- SPACECOM: Peterson AFB, Colorado (at the time of this writing)
- SOCOM: U.S. Special Operations Command, MacDill AFB, Tampa, Florida
- TRANSCOM: U.S. Transportation Command, Scott AFB, Illinois
- STRATCOM: U.S. Strategic Command, Offutt AFB, Nebraska
- CYBERCOM: U.S. Cyber Command, Fort Meade, Maryland
The last four commands are considered Functional Combat Commands, while the others (including U.S. SPACECOM, or U.S. Space Command) are considered Geographic Combatant Commands and not a Functional Combat Command.
U.S. Space Command is a DoD-level agency rather than a Major Command operated by one of the branches of military service. It is not a separate branch of the military, but rather would incorporate assets and personnel from multiple branches of military service.
The establishment of the U.S. Space Command as a Unified Combatant Command is the precursor to the establishment of a sixth branch of the U.S. military, Space Operations Force or Space Force, as it is commonly known.
U.S. Space Operations Force
Space Operations Force is the name given to the proposed sixth branch of the military. At the time of this writing Space Force has a goal of being established sometime in 2020, something reinforced by an August 9, 2019 speech by Vice President Mike Pence.
The Senate version of the 2020 National Defense Authorization Act (which has a section dedicated to the establishment of the Space Operations Force as a sixth branch of military service) introduced some added controversy.
That controversy came in the form of a proposal that in addition to the creation of a Space Force, there should also be a major re-think of military defense systems acquisition. The legislation proposed a separate acquisition system or program be created specifically to serve Space Force needs.
But regardless of how things work out for funding, supplying, and running the U.S. Space Operations Force, the nature of this entity as a sixth functioning branch of military service brings with it a variety of questions about how such a goal is to be accomplished, especially with a goal of being introduced sometime in 2020.
It’s important to remember that the needs of a military branch of service extend beyond just what is required to plan and execute mission requirements; as a functioning military branch there are a variety of issues to address including basic training, military base needs, establishments of chain-of-command procedures, uniform design and manufacturing, and much more.
Some of those needs have already been considered at least in part–Vice President Pence has discussed drawing personnel from the existing military service branches to staff the Space Operations Force. How much of that will translate into practical efforts to recruit from the Army, Navy, Coast Guard, Marine Corps, and Air Force is not clear at the time of this writing.
U.S. Space Development Agency
The third government entity mentioned in connection with Space Command and Space Operations Force is the Space Development Agency (SDA). U.S. SDA was opened in March 2019, receiving its first director, Fred Kennedy who was the director of the Tactical Technology Office, which operates under the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. Kennedy is a retired Air Force colonel who worked as a senior policy advisor under President Barack Obama.
The U.S. Space Development Agency would, according to some DoD officials, function as an organization “uniquely positioned” to find “novel and innovative solutions necessary to outpace advancing threats.” SDA operations would include policy development and execution plans for space operations except those covered by DoD intelligence budget plans.
SDA isn’t interested in working in a vacuum, according to several sources. Plans for the agency include strategies proposed to leverage commercial relationships, partner with other governments, and form “international collaboration” with both commercial and government interests.
Limitations On Space Command
In 1967, the United States, the Soviet Union, and the United Kingdom signed the Outer Space Treaty.
This was also known as the Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies, forming what could be known as the first international law applicable to military operations in space. The treaty took effect on October 10, 1967.
Since that time many more nations have joined this effort to prevent the militarization of certain aspects of outer space. As of 2019, more than 100 countries have signed the treaty and more than 20 other nations have signed but not ratified it.
The Space Treaty And Nuclear Proliferation In Space
The Space Treaty forbids the placement of nuclear weapons in outer space, it restricts the use of the moon and “all other celestial bodies” to peaceful operations, and codifies the idea that space is “free” and to be explored by all nations.
Military missions are not prohibited in space by the treaty, and space is allowed to be weaponized by non-nuclear armaments.
Among the notable achievements of this treaty is codification of the idea that the Moon and other celestial bodies may not be appropriated by an individual nation. The prohibition extends to claiming any form of national sovereignty over the moon or other bodies.
The treaty does permit the exercise of national sovereignty over any object launched into space from Earth. The treaty also holds that the nation launching things into space will also be held responsible for damage caused by such activities.
The Consultation Clause
There is other legislation that affects space operations, one of the most notable is the Consultation Clause requiring discussion among nations for any proposed space operation that may cause harm to other space-based activities.
The Space Rescue Treaty
Another associated treaty was drafted in 1967, known as the Agreement on the Rescue of Astronauts, the Return of Astronauts and the Return of Objects Launched into Outer Space. This agreement, passed by 19 nations at the U.N. General Assembly, establishes the rights and responsibilities of individual governments where space rescue operations are concerned.
The treaty was amended to provide clarity for certain portions of the agreement, such as defining anyone aboard as being affected by the rescue agreement; this was key to distinguish between a fully trained astronaut, a passenger, or an advisor on board a space vehicle. The original language of the treaty referred to an obligation to help “astronauts” as part of the treaty.
The addition of language to disambiguate this obligation makes it clear that anyone on board a spacecraft in need of rescue assistance is eligible to get such help as a provision of the treaty.
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