Preparing for War in Space: A Tough Challenge for the Military

Shannon Vavra, a reporter with an intriguing new media outlet Axios, quotes me in her new story (“The U.S. Air Force is preparing to fight in space”) about what the Air Force terms as major changes to [its] space enterprise.”

Air Force Chief of Staff General David Goldfein says the changes are “to ensure we can organize, train, and equip our space forces to have the skills necessary to operate in a contested environment, defend our systems, and assure space missions and space superiority.”

The Air Force’s actions seem directly related to recent expressions of Congressional concern about the service’s approach to space.  One congressman, Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Ala.), has even talked about establishing in ten or twelve years a separate Space Force to go along with the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marine Corps.

I doubt that would happen in the timeline Congressman Rogers suggests, as the cost of establishing a separate service bureaucracy would be substantial and duplicative – nonstarters in today’s austere funding environment.  And although I support the new organizational initiative, I don’t agree with the implication that the Air Force hasn’t been trying to address the tough challenges of preparing for space, which are many.

In fact, I tried to emphasize those challenges in my response to Ms. Vavra’s query.  Since she was only able to use part of it, here’s the full version:

A key reason that the US military is the dominant armed force in the world today is space.  So much of what makes it uniquely lethal is its ability to use satellites not only to gather intelligence from every place on the planet, but also to instantly command and control its forces anywhere on the globe. In addition, precision-guided weapons use global positioning satellites (GPS) to precisely apply force.  This is why China and Russia especially are working so hard to negate the US’s enormous advantage. 

But protecting satellites is a lot harder than destroying them, so it takes sophisticated equipment, constant monitoring, and quick action to protect these costly and hard-to-replace assets.  It is a very difficult and complicated task, so I’m not surprised the Air Force is ramping up its ability to fight in space.  And the threat isn’t just from enemy states, it also comes from the huge amount of space debris that can destroy a satellite if there’s a collision.   There are also natural occurring phenomena such as solar flares that can be very damaging to satellites.  All in all, space presents a lot of challenges for the military. 

Space isn’t just important for the military.  Although people may not realize it, but the U.S. Air Force maintains the GPS navigation system that’s essential for everything from cell phones to all forms of transportations and more.  It’s not too much to say that the loss of our space assets would be devastating for our economy.

For those interested in the law applicable to military operations in space, a good starting point is the ever-reliable Mike Schmitt’s piece, International Law and Military Operations in Space.”  More recently the ICRC’s Intercross blog hosted a series entitledWhy Outer Space Matters that was introduced by Rob Ramey, then the ICRC’s Deputy Legal Advisor in the ICRC’s Regional Delegation for the United States and Canada.  Rob himself wrote the seminal law review article, Armed Conflict on the Final Frontier: The Law of War in Space,” back in 2000, and the Intercross series he organized provides a fascinating collection of short essays by various experts that are of interest to national and international security law scholars and practitioners.

Former Legal Adviser to the State Department Brian Egan’s December 2016 speech (“The Next Fifty Years of the Outer Space Treaty”) is worth a read, especially with respect to space exploration and space resources.  The new Administration seems to have an energetic vision for space, which emphasizes its commercial potential.  No doubt increased security concerns will continue to emerge, so the Air Force’s new initiative seems well timed.




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