Earthlings don’t need to worry about astronauts with rifles or red, white and blue starfighters blasting off into orbit anytime soon.
U.S. President Donald Trump’s proposed Space Force will have to clear several major logistical, political and international hurdles before it gets off the ground. And even when the U.S. does launch a new sixth branch of its military, it’ll likely be business as usual for American interests in space.
In other words, don’t expect the U.S. to deploy troops in orbit to protect its interests, defence analyst Todd Harrison says.
“It’s all unmanned, remotely-operated satellites,” said Harrison, director of the Aerospace Security Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“All the people will remain here on Earth, but the activity is what’s going on in space.”
Harrison says there’s already plenty of conflict happening in orbit around the planet, but it’s all playing out at the digital level, with satellites being hacked, duped, blinded or jammed remotely.
“There’s not kinetic attacks in space right now,” he said. “But we do see non-kinetic forms of attack all the time.”
Harrison says a U.S. Space Force likely wouldn’t be deployed to conquer space in the traditional sense but to “maintain the status quo” for these American satellites.
There’s also very little chance that the U.S. would start shooting down foreign satellites because the resulting debris cloud would cause far more damage to American satellites than to foreign ones.
“The United States has more to lose than any other country, so I don’t see a scenario in which the United States would want to start a kinetic conflict in space,” he said.
Military on the moon
Experts in space law say even if the Space Force becomes a reality, international law prohibits the U.S. from using its military might for much beyond peaceful exploration and satellite-based digital warfare.
She points out that all nations — including the U.S. — are prohibited from using space for anything other than peaceful purposes under the Outer Space Treaty of 1967.
“Outer space, including the moon and other celestial bodies, is not subject to national appropriation by claim of sovereignty, by means of use or occupation, or by any other means,” Article II of the treaty says.
The treaty also prohibits nations from carrying nuclear weapons or weapons of mass destruction into orbit, and from building military bases or weapons on the moon.
“That is a strict prohibition,” Gabrynowicz said.
These theoretical situations are likely several years down the road, but the mere establishment of a Space Force might be enough to inspire reaction from other nations, according to McGill University law professor Ram Jakhu.
“This is a major step toward creating more tension,” he said.
Jakhu, who also serves as director of the Institute of Air and Space Law, points out that any violation of the Outer Space Treaty would have sweeping political repercussions for the U.S.
Those repercussions would likely include condemnations from the United Nations, as well as a potential tit-for-tat response from space rivals such as China or Russia.
“Things may get out of hand,” he said.
Trump explicitly said the Space Force will be established to defend the U.S., and announced it on Monday at a meeting of the National Space Council.
“When it comes to defending America, it is not enough to merely have an American presence in space,” he said. “We must have American dominance in space.”
Harrison says the U.S. will need to catch up to its technological rivals if it wants to defend its satellite dominance around Earth.
“The space arms race has already kicked off, and this is more of a response to it,” he said.
A jealous Air Force
The U.S. will most likely form the Space Force by carving out pieces of the Air Force and other relevant space-focused agencies, Harrison said.
“You could do this without any additional resources,” he said.
“All the people that currently do space in the military would just be realigned under this new organization.”
But that plan won’t sit well with the Air Force, which stands to surrender the bulk of its more-than-$150-billion budget if it loses the space portfolio.
“It’s going to be taking resources and personnel and some prestige from the Air Force,” Harrison said.
The Air Force was established by breaking it off from the Army to form a new branch of the U.S. military in 1947.
Several top military officials have already spoken out against using the same strategy to establish a Space Force.
Last year, for instance, Air Force Chief of Staff David Goldfein told a congressional hearing that a Space Force would “move us in the wrong direction.”
But Harrison says the military is far more likely to fall in line now that Trump has given the order to make the Space Force happen.
“They’re not really going to be able to oppose it — at least not publicly,” he said.
He says the real challenge will be getting the Space Force approved by Congress, which already rejected a proposal last year to establish a Space Corps.
Harrison says the Space Force will probably be approved, but it likely won’t blast off within Trump’s first term in office.
“This won’t happen quickly,” he said.
— With files from Reuters