When President Trump first floated the idea of an entirely new branch of the armed forces dedicated to space-based operations, the response from political observers was limited to bemused snickering. That mockery and amusement have not abated in the intervening months.
Thursday’s announcement by Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of Defense James Mattis that the administration plans to establish a sixth armed forces branch by 2020 occasioned only more displays of cynicism, but it shouldn’t have. This is deadly serious stuff.
The expansion and consolidation of US capacities to defend its interests outside the atmosphere are inevitable and desirable.
Though you would not know it from those who spent the day chuckling over the prospect of an American space command, the militarization of this strategically vital region is decades old. Thousands of both civilian and military communications and navigation satellites operate in earth orbit, to say nothing of the occasional human.
It’s impossible to say how many weapons are already stationed in orbit because many of these platforms are “dual use,” meaning that they could be transformed into kill vehicles at a moment’s notice.
American military planners have been preoccupied with the preservation of critical US communications infrastructure in space since at least 2007, when China stunned observers by launching a missile that intercepted and destroyed a satellite.
America’s chief strategic competitors — Russia and China — and rogue actors like Iran and North Korea are all committed to developing the capability to target America’s command-and-control infrastructure, a lot of which is space-based.