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Space Force to Play Increasingly Critical Role in Future of Warfare

May 14, 2021 by Reece Nations
Space Force Guardians (Photo by Natela Cutter The Defense Language Institute Foreign Language Center)

The conception of the United States Space Force developed from the bipartisan consensus that the country needed enhanced military capabilities in the domain of space.

When President Ronald Reagan first announced the “Strategic Defense Initiative” in 1983, the concept was disparaged for being impractical and costly. However, former administrator of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, Jim Bridenstine, said the Soviet Union took notice of the initiative and began their own slew of investments into their capabilities in space.

“They called it ‘Star Wars’ to belittle the program,” Bridenstine said Tuesday at a Heritage Foundation event. “One of the things that was important was that the biggest competitor at the time — the enemy of the United States, the Soviet Union — stepped up to the plate and said ‘Look, we believe they can do it,’ and they started investing in capabilities that would be able to counteract the Strategic Defense Initiative.” 

Now, the country’s new tool for leveraging strategic national defense in space is the USSF, established by the 2020 National Defense Authorization Act. As an increasing number of U.S. commercial assets are sent into space in the form of satellite technology, Bridenstine said the military has an increased incentive to establish defensive capabilities in the domain. 

Last summer, the Army employed a constellation of 600 SpaceX Starlink satellites designed to provide broadband internet access to remote regions as part of its “Project Convergence” program. Since then, the number of SpaceX satellites utilized by the Army has grown to around 1400 and has become an increasingly useful alternative to GPS. 

“That was a pretty impressive demonstration for a still limited network of satellites that we’re calling ‘mega constellations’ now,” said Everett Dolman, professor in the Department of Space Power at the U.S. Air Force Command and Staff College, during the Heritage Foundation event. “We’re looking at having a lot of those in the future, which is going to be a good thing and a bad thing. But, the real advantage this particular system can provide to the military is communication and data to far-flung, widely dispersed platforms for services that might be in a data shadow, that wouldn’t have cell integration, that could be jammed by radio jammer… you’ve got now a network of satellites that are linked by laser comms, which means that regular jamming is going to become very difficult against them.” 

As the commercial, military and civil sectors progressively become more intertwined, the role of the USSF will become increasingly necessary to protect those assets, Dolman said. Establishing a space ecosystem along with authority to enforce rules and doctrines is one of the key factors of consistent capabilities.

However, the perception of American readiness to protect space assets is still starkly limited and there is ample room for improvement, said M.V. “Coyote” Smith, associate professor in the Department of Space Power at the U.S. Air Force Command and Staff College, during the event. Although the USSF was the world’s first standalone military branch focused on space operations, China and Russia still possess sophisticated counter-space capabilities that “dwarf” those of the U.S. military. 

“I would say that we are — presently today — extremely poorly prepared to deal with adversary counter-space (attacks) against our satellites,” Smith said. “We’ve got some encryption, some hardened systems, some improved systems of communication, but basically one of the things we are counting on are these massive constellations of large numbers of satellites — which is kind of like throwing skeet in front of the enemy’s shotgun.” 

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