Humanity has never been farther from home than the moon (and that was nearly 50 years ago), but the United States may soon be getting its own Space Force. So, what are the dangers a Space Force is meant to grapple with? And what would it do that isn’t being done now by the Air Force and the other services?
The War Zone’s Joseph Trevithick joins us to explain that the dangers in space are very real, even if it isn’t clear that a Space Force is the answer.
BELOW IS AN AUTOMATED TRANSCRIPT – WE APOLOGIZE FOR TYPOS, BUT THE MACHINE DID IT.
You know, it’s not Marines and space. It’s not guys with laser guns. It’s actually really boring, which is why a lot of the reporting has to sort of tap into one of these more fanciful ideas.
You’re listening to War College, a weekly podcast that brings you the stories from behind the front lines. Here are your hosts Matthew Gault and Jason fields.
Hello, and welcome to War College. I’m Matthew Galt and I’m Jason fields. Pure space force. You’re probably thinking Star Wars, Battlestar Galactica, or even the expanse but put that out of your mind, stead of x-wings, mini critics and vision added bureaucracy.
And that’s just not really exciting. But that doesn’t mean the US isn’t facing real threats and space. So what would a space force be? Do we need one? And how does the rest of the military feel about this to help us figure that out? We’re going to sit down with the war zones. Joseph Trebek to get some answers. Joe, thank you so much for joining us. Thank you for having me. Let’s get some basics out of the way. First, what are the dangers that the US is facing in space? Why do we need a space force or do we well, the the danger is losing your satellites at the that’s the danger at the moment is that the US military relies heavily on its satellites for
increasingly diverse roles. So you have communications and then you have navigation GPS, but then that GPS also guides weapons and can help in positioning you know, determining the position of other people and then there are a host of
early warning systems to spot and then track incoming ballistic missiles and otherwise spy on enemy nations. And so there are quite a number of satellites doing a quite a number of things in space. If you lose a significant number of them for any reason, suddenly you can find yourself unable to talk, unable to find out where you are unable to guide your weapons precisely to the target, unable to be warned of incoming strategic weapons, possibly with nuclear warheads, or just basically deaf, dumb and blind to what your enemy might be doing or what a potential opponent might be doing. So if you’re trying to monitor say what North Korea is doing with its nuclear weapons program, and you’re got satellites hovering over it’s possible nuclear sites, you lose that coverage, you know, there’s there’s all sorts of different things that can happen. So protecting all of those satellites to do all of their diverse functions is important.
Yeah, but who would have the have the gall to threaten our space, hedge money? Anybody with the ability to put basically a really big interceptor into space for one. So the Chinese and the Russians have both demonstrated surface based anti satellite weapons, which are Akin essentially to anti ballistic missile defense systems that we have. So imagine basically a ballistic missile defense interceptor instead, but instead of hitting an incoming ballistic missile, you are using the precision capabilities there to engage a hostile satellite or is that a way that you believe to be Austin You can also potentially do this by launching smaller satellites or other hazards into space. The Russians just last year launched yet another so cold space apparatus inspector which is a micro satellite, basically with the ability to maneuver very close to others.
satellites in space with the I dia ostensibly being that if it’s broken you know you remember the people may remember the Hubble telescope was broken when they put it into orbit so the idea is you might want a small satellite to go and try and see what the issue is before you take the next step you Mansell, legitimate civilian or non hostile military application but any satellite that can do that kind of inspection work can inherently use any number of little robotic arms to rip apart very sensitive satellite components or I mean everything moves in space very quickly it doesn’t take very much to be threatening so if you get it really close, you could possibly just maneuver it into the other satellite and use it as a sort of kinetic interceptor just a you know big rock basically smash into another satellite
of course that would be very expensive way to get rid of a satellite I would think to have to put something into orbit in order to do it in the first place but I mean you’re talking about a relatively
Cheap satellites, you know, satellite, you know, space and launching satellites is not cheap, but you’re talking very small satellites be things do not need to be big. And if your concern is that your opponent has a has an unfair advantage, short of disabling all their ground based infrastructure to do whatever it is that they’re doing, that could be a really cost effective way to negate those advantages, or at least trite,
alright, well, whose job is all of this right now,
right now, the US military has space functions spread among the various services, but the US Strategic Command has what it’s it’s a bunch of alphabet soup, but it has a command that draws from all of the different services to monitor space and to coordinate space military space activity.
He’s in the United States. And so us Strategic Command then runs the joint Space Operations Center, which monitors satellites and keeps tabs on all of the satellites that are up there, just in case something shows up that shouldn’t be there or something goes missing when it shouldn’t, or some other unusual activity. So, you know, the US Strategic Command is monitoring. And then every one of the US military services has its own commands that are also working on space and coordinate with that higher headquarters. I mean, it’s a sort of the problem mean space is boring. It’s a lot of dotted lines on on organization charts and a lot of budget talk and a lot of sort of really granular administrative stuff.
And so that’s sort of, I guess, how you were getting to where we are today talking about space and space force is is trying to get away from a lot of the pressure
Exceptions then they crop up about what’s supposed to be going on. But I mean, these guys are they’re doing monitoring of what’s going on in space. They’re controlling satellites, they’re dealing with those satellites. It’s all ground based. It’s a lot of monitors and control centers. That’s basically their job.
Do we think that they’re doing a good job right now, in this various Space Forces that will, I guess, become the space force,
I do not know enough to know whether they’re doing a good job. Now, I do know that
the vast majority of it is consolidated in the Air Force Space Command, which is the Air Force component for this which handles 85% or something. Approximately 85% of satellite launches for the US military and maintains the bulk of the ground based infrastructure that handles those things. The argument that is being made is that the Air Force
is too worried about everything else it does to focus appropriately on space. That is, that is the argument that is being made. Well, what’s the Air Force’s counter argument? Are they worried about this? Are they upset, they feel like something’s being taken away from them. What’s going on? The Air Force has not publicly worried about this, the Air Force has come out and said that it is unnecessary and has come out as opposed to be the creation of a new command and a new service. And these are two separate things. The US military is about to create a new unified command for space. And that will then bring in elements from all the services under one house basically, but there is then talk of creating an entire new branch of the military on an equal footing with, you know, like the Army or the Navy but for space and the Air Force and said that that’s unnecessary, and it would be sort of bureaucratic nightmare but they have
Not sort of publicly come out in and said specifically, you know, we’re worried about this. We they just they come out and say
we don’t believe that this is the right path for you know there’s a lot of a lot of couching and a lot of euphemism. And a lot of things like that most services don’t care enough because it doesn’t it’s it isn’t a majority of what they do every day. And so they they also have not issued clear statements in opposition to this. The Pentagon, the Secretary of Defense, James Madison in 2017 did issue a statement where he would, you know, voiced a VM in opposition to the creation of an independent space force. He has since changed his opinion for reasons that remain unknown to the public. He denies that this is a reversal of his opinion, which stands in stark contrast it everything he has said in the past and makes
No sense. But if there was a change, it has been a change in favor of space for us from the people who were actually in opposition to space force. The other question you had asked was does the Air Force stand to lose Yes, therefore stands to lose the entire part of its budget that goes to space. I, like I said, they are responsible for 85% of the space launches and they maintain the infrastructure to do all that they would go somewhere else to a new space course. And that’s, I believe, 35,000 approximately individuals so they would lose that manpower as well.
And the other services stand to lose much, much smaller elements in this process. So again, they have a lower stake in this it sounds a lot like with some small with some differences when the Air Force was created.
Yes, in many ways, the Air Force of course, is still very new. The Air Force just recently celebrated its 75th birthday last year. It’s birthday is coming up. It’s one of these witnesses. I share a birthday with the Air Force. So I know the Air Force’s birthday because it’s my birthday. And the Air Force is very well aware of being new and very, very well aware of what it takes to carve out a new niche in the US military. And I think they are worried that they’re still in that process and they’re already being talked about being sort of cut up Now, to be fair, the original legislation that was proposed for the 2017 fiscal year which did not make it into that year’s defense budget cold for creating the air the space force within the department of the Air Force in a relationship that would
akin to help them Marines exist as a separate force, but within the Department of the Navy,
and there was then a debate about whether the Air Force we get the final say then over Space Forces budget and other decisions in the weight of the Navy gets the final decision over the Marine Corps budget. And other final decisions like
that is one of the many questions that has not been fully answered when it comes to this plan.
Who thought that we needed a space force is there some lobby out there that said, this is something that is just missing
the space force lobbies such as it exists in Congress has almost been one one man, Mike Rogers, representative of Alabama. And I think it’s important to note that that Mike Rogers has been pitching this idea on and off for some time now.
He has been adamant that the Air Force is not doing an adequate job with regards to space and that an independent Space Forces necessary. It is also important to note that Mike Rogers of Alabama has been proposing a a arrangement that is now being put into motion in part to begin with, at least that will transform the Air Force space and missile Center, which is at the US Army’s Redstone Arsenal in Alabama into a new thing called the space Development Agency, which will be larger and have a bigger budget and potentially drawing more people to the area. And I think that that’s a unimportant point that needs to be noted in the overall scheme of this because it does seem interesting that the first top priority is to essentially increase US military
infrastructure in Alabama.
And there’s something to be said for the Army’s recent decision to create this thing called futures command and how futures command went shopping to various cities around the United States and there was a very big battle over where they were going to put that and there’s been no talk yet about where the space force headquarters would go but I have some I have some theories on that
well what are your theories
my theories are that it may well it could easily go where the Air Force Space Command is which is out in Colorado It could also easily go at Redstone Arsenal already facility tertiary to that and those are very important budgetary decisions Congress will undoubtedly fight about in the same way that it fights about the creation you know, fought about the creation
The Air Force and thought about the creation of where then all the little Air Force bits we go and where it’s still fights to this day about basing in general I mean, all across the services, that’s a major issue that doesn’t get much play because it’s again, this is actually, you know, it’s not Marines in space. It’s not guys with laser guns is actually really boring, which is why a lot of the reporting has to sort of tap into one of these more fanciful ideas to try and drum up any interest because if you just talked about the reality is
it’s really nitty gritty. It’s mostly robots, you know, kind of careening around and some minor laser fire, right if even that it’s mostly guys sitting in a very dark room for very long shifts, making sure that if those robots in space start to exist, that they’ll know about it first before something happens.
Is there something about the United States that makes us particularly vulnerable to attack from space or attack of our stuff in space?
We have more of it. We have a lot of it and we rely heavily on it if the Russia has a satellite navigation system called glos. Nos it is an analog to GPS that the Russians operate you know remember that the GPS is a is an American thing that we have sort of farmed out now that is a is a global standard but it is not the global standard the Russians have their own thing Russia just rolled out a upgraded version of one of its to you 22 and backfire bombers just this past week that will now be able to use glos NASS navigation just now one they have one so far. It’s an upgrade program that will eventually
Hopefully if they can find the money go through the rest of the fleet. The rest of those bombers do not have connectivity to their satellite navigation system. They use a combination of older style navigation. And the Russians have been huge on Astro navigation, which you would use as a backup if your satellite navigation system went down. Studies have repeatedly shown that the US military focuses so heavily on the ability to use GPS and to use GPS so intertwined with everything that when GPS fails, troops in the field have serious difficulty going back to traditional land navigation methods and navigating by map and compass. It is part of the American way of war. Now, GPS is integrated into everything. I mean, we talk about GPS guided bombs every other day. If GPS were to stop for 12 hours in a major battlefield.
commanders would basically not be able to drop GPS guided bombs with any confidence in their ability to hit the target.
Well, let me ask you this, how many satellites Do you have to disable for GPS to go down
that? I don’t know.
But I also know that that that is a number that you can calculate. And if you decide that that’s a very important thing for you to do, I would imagine you could make that happen. And I also know that it’s it is a constellation of satellites working together. And so you don’t necessarily need to destroy the entire constellation for the constellation to be not working at 100% Eclipse quick. Google, by the way, gives us 24, it’s only 24 of them. So you like you’re saying you knock out just a few of those in the whole system gets kind of thrown out of whack? Well, it may not be as reliable, it may not be as accurate. It may not be as quick and like I said, you don’t have to have it down for a protracted period of time for it to be causing problems.
If you’re if you know that your opponent has difficulty navigate just basic navigation from point A to point B without help of GPS and you would like to stall them
at a critical moment,
right? You find out find a way, which is also why the Russians are investing heavily in GPS jamming on the ground and GPS spoofing. Because if you jam the signal on the ground saves you the hassle of having to blow up the satellites has the same impact or if you spoof the coordinates and people can’t trust where they are anymore or and more importantly, if you’re flying a plane
over guys in contact and you want to drop a GPS guided bomb really close to them because the guys shooting at your friend your friendly troops are really nearby and you want to use that precision to hit the house across the street and everybody’s agreed to
Is you lose confidence in the ability with the potential for spoofing that it’s not going to be 30 feet to the right or left or, you know, 30 feet right on top of your guys. And these kind of incidents happen already because of the chaos and confusion of war and trying to figure out from a fast moving plane where people are on the ground. I mean, this is a thing that happens. So again, you know, this is just GPS, this isn’t even all of the other things that we’ve talked about. This is just one satellite constellation. So thank God, there are massive force fields protecting all of our satellites and we don’t have to worry about any of this stuff. Right, right. We have none of that. I mean, satellites are inherently fragile, they’re up in space, they’re moving at an exceptionally high rate of speed, in which case a small grain of dust is a danger and so this is sort of the other thing Yes.
threats and space are real. Is space force going to get around the inherent problems that you face in space? You know, the argument, the argument that is being made is that the Air Force, which has to be worried about fighter jets, bombers and things on the ground doesn’t have the time or the energy to put the the adequate focus on finding out what comes next to deal with all these threats. What about the idea of terror inborn threats to things in space? We had talked about that briefly. And that there are ground based anti satellite weapons and then there are air launched adult anti satellite weapons. And so you don’t even need to put your own satellites into orbit to have this effect. And again, countries that do not rely on satellites because they are expensive and complicated and you have to put a lot of infrastructure in place to get them to work countries that don’t work.
Why on them have see them as an asymmetric advantage that the United States as especially and have been developing these weapons as a potential counter to that as as you would expect someone to do i mean that’s that’s not shocking that there have been developments in this regard and that those countries are very keen to preserve that capability of themselves because there are treaties being discussed to ban weapons
in outer space there is right now there is a The only existing treaty bands and nuclear weapons in space but there have been treated been proposals for treaties that ban any kind of weapon in space and the general hang up in the arms control community you know in the international arms control community is how do you define a weapon in space if we banned weapons in space but don’t ban any of these ground based were or air launched anti settle
Weapons does it matter and if we don’t you know Can we do this in such a way that we’re banning the development somehow have this capability so that if somebody decides they don’t want to be party that a treaty anymore that they don’t just wake up the next morning and suddenly just put a bunch of anti satellite interceptors into production, you know tomorrow and you know, as we’ve stated the countries without satellites have a distinctly lower incentive to worry about many of these questions Russia and China you know they don’t they’re not particularly worried about they’re worried about banning weapons in space because the United States is talking about revitalizing programs to develop space based ballistic missile weapons and defense Ballistic Missile Defense weapons and such things the Russians are not talking about doing that so they want to both ban that but also create a system in which if the United States
fails its obligations that they are prepared to respond, which is why they want this carve out for ground based anti satellite weapons. It’s you know, again, it’s like, you know, that’s that’s an equally boring thing, because it’s a bunch of diplomats sitting in a room trying to hash out the details of an international arms control treaty, which most people don’t have the time or the energy to sit through on a weekend and try and explore basically the last 40 years of this discussion or more. I mean, you know, the the most recent discussion that has happened in earnest starts with the Reagan era program to put Ballistic Missile Defense weapons in space, which thankfully got canceled in 1993, but that was back you can call it Star Wars. It’s okay. We call it the strategic Strategic Defense Initiative organization. Yes, yes, we’re talking about Star Wars A which wich rightly derisively described as I mean the the last of about two or three does
I feel like concepts for weapons in space was a system called brilliant pebbles, which would have placed
thousands of micro satellites in orbit basically everywhere. And then if a missile showed up, they would smash into them. And that that program was estimated to cost 10s of billions of dollars in 1990. Well, let me ask you a big picture, philosophical question about all of this, then why does it seem as if humanity’s dreams about space have now become humanity’s dreams of putting weapons in space? Once you knew you could get up there, you know it, it was another place that you could fight over. And that was true. In the 60s, the US government was talking about the potential for conflict in space and talking about Space Marines like talking about guys fighting on the moon with guns quote unquote, and little rovers like actual space battles on the moon. You
far fetched concept, but it was one that that the that the sort of planners were envisioning as inevitable that has not come to pass. But, you know, they’re talking about basing nuclear weapons in space and all sorts of things which, which did lead to international treaty banning and now, you know, you have to go back to that discussion about whether the Air Force is scared or not about this, the Air Force ended up in what I see, you know, they have not said so, but what can be seems to be so clearly
an attempt to show that they are serious about space in a way that they have never been serious before. They’re talking about pre positioning cargo in space and that you would like be able to order down you know, a Humvee in a drop pod like something out of a video like literally the way chaos Marines launched. Okay, that’s that’s it. That’s too esoteric no more Warhammer 40 k references. I promise. You know, Command and Conquer.
Halo you there’s a, there’s a this is again, a not a it is a staple in science fiction is not a staple in reality. But the idea that you would, you would have these preposition cargo dumps and then if something happened, you know, you just press the button basically in an order on down whatever you needed at a moment’s notice at a moment’s notice. That’s always the thing. It’s it’s hypersonic travel in space, it’s the ability to go from basically one end of the end of the world to the other in in measured in minutes in, you know, 30 minutes or less. Basically, the Air Force is talking about that
with with no more more serious explanation of how work than there has ever been the space born rapid travel and space based cargo concepts for some reason always seem to be five to 10 years in the future. The last time we did this in the 2000s there was a program that ran from about 2002 to about 2009 it to
2009 the people who were studying this were adamant there was five to 10 years in the future well we are five to 10 years in the future from there now and we’re talking about it being five to 10 years in the future again so I feel like that should tell you something but that’s not even the most crazy thing the Air Force’s suggested I mean the air forces has actually had senior officials flag officers talking about conducting intelligence and other galaxies literal literal other galaxies as if we are close to being able to not only travel to other galaxies but to set up some sort of intelligence post there are some other military base there in the you know, the Russians in the Andromeda Galaxy would be a a potential threat again, no explanation of how or why or whether that ever make sense because it doesn’t it just does not make sense we’re we’re not even close to getting tomorrow.
And Mars is only about 50 million miles away, you know exponentially shorter distance than what we’re talking about for the than the closest other galaxy to ours. But the Air Force keeps putting out these these suggestions. And it’s like, you’re too serious. This is too serious, because there are real threats and space. And there are real concerns. And if you want to show that you are the best equipped service to deal with it, because you already deal with it now, and that you you are actually serious, despite all the criticism, there are many, many things you could focus on, like the questions we’ve asked today. So how are you going to protect those satellites?
How are you going to deal with the potential for weapons in space if the United States pushes ahead with that won’t everybody else basically just follow all of these are real quest
you know that will happen in our lifetime because they’re already happening now, but we’ve already gone so far beyond that with this space for
discussion that it’s difficult to separate whether people are actually taking this seriously or if they’re if it’s just a joke within the Pentagon.
Joseph Trevor thick of the war zone. Thank you so much for coming on to war college and bursting the space force bubble. Happy to be here and happy to talk about what may or may not ever happen.
Thanks for listening to this week’s show. If you enjoyed it, let the world know by leaving us a review on iTunes or wherever you got the podcast. We’re putting transcripts of most shows online at War College podcast dot com
and you can reach us on Twitter. We are at or underscore college and on facebook facebook dot com slash or college podcast. We’d love to hear from you. So hit us up
or colleges, me Jason fields and Matthew Galt We will be back next week.