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Space Force Proposal Hits Counterforce in Senate Hearing

Senators agree that the United States needs to be better prepared to defend itself in the space domain, but they are skeptical about a proposed dedicated space force.

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United States military leaders supporting the White House plan for a proposed new space force ran into a strong counterforce at a Senate hearing on 11 April.

Republican and Democratic senators alike largely agreed that the United States needs to improve its military capabilities and defensive awareness in the face of a space domain that is increasingly contested by China, Russia, and others.

However, a number of senators were skeptical about whether the administration’s plan to establish a dedicated space force as a new branch of the nation’s armed forces would be the best way to effectively meet the challenge. They also expressed concern about a top-heavy bureaucracy and the price tag for a space force.

“I fully agree that the threat is real and that changes need to be made to better address the threat,” said Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.), ranking member of the Senate Committee on Armed Services, which conducted the hearing. “However, creating a new branch of the armed forces for the first time in 70 years is not a decision Congress should make lightly.”

Reed noted that the estimated 16,500 personnel in the Space Force would include about 1,000 serving in headquarters positions. The Department of Defense (DOD) indicated in a February 2019 document that establishing a headquarters would require $72 million in fiscal year (FY) 2020 and that about $2 billion would be needed to grow the Space Force between FY 2020 and FY 2024.

The Administration’s Plan

A 19 February White House policy directive about a space force states that “it is imperative” that the country “adapt its national security organizations, policies, doctrine, and capabilities to deter aggression and protect our interests. Toward that end, the Department of Defense shall take actions under existing authority to marshal its space resources to deter and counter threats in space, and to develop a legislative proposal to establish a United States Space Force as a sixth branch of the United States Armed Forces within the Department of the Air Force.”

The United States “is at risk of losing its comparative advantage in space,” the DOD document states.

“Although U.S. space systems have historically been technologically superior, China and Russia have embarked on major efforts to develop counter-space capabilities in order to destroy or disrupt U.S. and allied space capabilities in a crisis or conflict,” the document reads. “They are also rapidly developing advanced space capabilities to enhance the lethality of their military operations, increasing the likelihood that U.S. and coalition forces will need to defeat the space capabilities of adversary forces in order to prevail in a potential conflict, to protect lives, and to secure the interests of the United States and its allies and partners.”

Senators Question the Need for a Space Force

Senators from both sides of the aisle said that they were not yet sold on a space force, which needs congressional approval.

“I guess we need some convincing that there is a necessity for a sixth branch within our services,” said Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa).

Sen. Angus King (I-Maine) said that he understands the threat and that adversaries are moving forward. “But I don’t understand how adding a box to an organizational chart is going to give us some kind of qualitative military edge,” he said.

Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) said that he was “having a real hard time understanding why we need this other agency. You’ve got everything at your disposal right now.”

Added Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), “There’s no reason to believe that adding an entirely new space force bureaucracy and pouring buckets of more money into it is going to reduce our overall vulnerability in space.”

Defending the Space Force

The witnesses tried to defend the need for a space force. Patrick Shanahan, acting secretary of defense, said, “Both China and Russia have weaponized space with the intent to hold American capabilities at risk. Every member of this committee has access to the classified threat picture. But the bottom line is, the next major conflict may be won or lost in space.”

Shanahan added that the status quo in space defense “is not sufficient,” particularly now when there is “an explosion in commercial space innovation” that is benefiting the economy.

Adversaries “are seeking to deny us the use of space in crisis or in war. Our response is to make sure that does not happen,” testified Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson. “We all prefer that space remains peaceful because everyone loses if war extends into space. But we are developing the capabilities to deter and, if necessary, to fight and win, in the space domain as we do in all other domains, so that our adversaries choose wisely to deal with our diplomats and not with our war fighters. That’s what [the Space Force] is about.”

Concern About the Militarization of Space

The proposed Space Force “is more likely to provoke the militarization of space than to reduce that prospect,” William Hartung, director of the Arms and Security Project at the Center for International Policy, told Eos. The center is a Washington, D.C.–based nonprofit research and advocacy organization that promotes cooperation, transparency, and accountability in global relations.

“Up until now, space has been preserved as a weapons-free zone that supports critical defense and commercial purposes while limiting the prospects for conflict originating in or aimed at space assets. The Space Force, with its inherent goal of militarizing U.S. space policy, could put this peaceful environment at risk by promoting the development of space-based missile interceptors that could double as antisatellite weapons, as well as other possible forms of space-based arms, Hartung said.

“To the extent that nations like Russia and China are developing capabilities that could threaten the peaceful uses of space or put U.S. military satellites at risk, the best approach is to seek a cooperative solution rather than escalate into what could easily evolve in a space arms race,” Hartung added. “A tit-for-tat approach that starts from worst-case scenarios and focuses on a military response will only serve to make all space assets more vulnerable than they are currently. Whether through a code of conduct and informal rules of the road or, eventually, via treaty, the answer to fears about the militarization of space lies in negotiation, not confrontation.”

Hartung said that while the United Nations’ Outer Space Treaty prohibits the deployment of nuclear weapons in space, “it can and should be strengthened to explicitly outlaw the deployment of any type of weapons system in orbit.”

—Randy Showstack (@RandyShowstack), Staff Writer

Citation: Showstack, R. (2019), Space Force proposal hits counterforce in Senate hearing, Eos, 100, https://doi.org/10.1029/2019EO121113. Published on 12 April 2019.
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