Some lawmakers pushing for ‘Space Corps’ to guard cosmos
Backers say China and Russia are increasingly targeting U.S. satellites
For generations, the U.S. military has fought its wars on land, in the air and on the seas, in the forests of Ardennes, the skies over Vietnam, the Persian Gulf and elsewhere. Now the Pentagon is increasingly focused on extending its prowess out to the cosmos, where many say the wars of the future will be won and lost.
But even as military leaders have taken steps to prepare for conflict in space, some in Congress fear those measures have not gone far enough. Now as the Senate debates the Defense Department’s spending plan, it is considering how best to hold and defend the ultimate high ground.
This year the House took a radical step, proposing by 2019 the creation of a “Space Corps,” a new military branch that would be dedicated to space the way the Navy is to the oceans. The move comes as Russia and China have taken giant leaps in strengthening their space systems related to national security, officials have said. China has demonstrated the ability to hit a satellite in low Earth orbit with a missile. China also has developed the capability to hit a target in a farther orbit, where the United States has many of its most crucial military and spy satellites.
“It is disturbing the rate at which China and Russia are pursuing these capabilities,” Rep. Mike D. Rogers (R-Ala.) said at a recent event at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “We have lost a dramatic lead in space that we should have never let get away from us. So that’s what gave us the sense of urgency to get after this.”
His proposal, crafted with Rep. Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.), would keep the Space Corps within the Air Force, much as the Marine Corps is a part of the Navy. But while part of the Air Force, the Space Corps would have its own funding, procurement programs and staff made up of service members specifically trained in space issues — creating a potentially lucrative new opportunity for the thriving commercial space industry.
The size and scope of the Space Corps would be left up to leaders in the Pentagon. They would decide how big it would be and what the bureaucracy would look like. They would have a “clean slate from which to start,” Rogers said.
Making any change in a bureaucracy as vast as the Pentagon’s is difficult, especially a change that calls for the creation of what would become the first new military service branch since the Air Force was made independent from the Army after World War II.
The White House and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis have spoken out against the proposal. In a letter to Congress, Mattis wrote according to CNN, “I do not wish to add a separate service that would likely present a narrower and even parochial approach to space operations.”
While the proposal is in the House’s version of the Pentagon’s spending plan, which was approved over the summer, it is not included in the Senate bill. And it has attracted high-profile criticism from within the Pentagon and on Capitol Hill.
Former Air Force secretary Deborah Lee James said that the Air Force already has established a new National Space Defense Center and that it is giving more priority to space issues, including training what she called “space warfighters.”
Such disruptive change within the Pentagon would “create enormous upheaval,” she said. “Sometimes the juice is not worth the squeeze.”
While not embracing a full Space Corps, the Senate version of the Pentagon spending plan calls for a high-level “chief information warfare officer” who would be responsible for space as well as cyberspace and electronic warfare.
The idea of another country’s missiles taking out U.S. satellites is not the only worry. Adversaries are developing technology to “dazzle” or jam the sensors on satellites. That would leave troops on the ground without ways to communicate. It could disable guidance mechanisms on weapons or leave intelligence agencies unable to track terrorists on the ground.
“Russia and China want to take our eyes and ears out,” Rogers said at the CSIS event. “That’s what’s up there, and that’s why they are spending an inordinate amount on space-based capabilities.”
And that is why many say that even if the Space Corps proposal does not pass this time around, its day will eventually come.
“In 30, 40, 50 years most people agree that we’ll eventually need an independent space service,” said Todd Harrison, a defense analyst at CSIS.
An Air Force plane takes off from Osan Air Base in Pyeongtaek, South Korea. A House proposal would see a “Space Corps” created within the Air Force by 2019, although the idea remains controversial.