2017 marks the 60th anniversary of the onset of the space age following the launch of Sputnik by the USSR in October 1957. The United States, certainly the Eisenhower administration, welcomed Sputnik because it set an important precedent, namely free navigation in space. Washington welcomed this because it gave the US free rein to use its lead in space, despite Sputnik and Gagarin the US was always in the lead, to develop intelligence gathering and other military related satellites.
When it comes to the historiography of space, much like any history, we need to be mindful of the difference between appearance and reality.
We say that although there was a space race between the US and the Soviet Union during the cold war, a race essential to the viability of their respective aerospace industries, nonetheless space was not contested that is a theatre for armed conflict.
This is now changing, and space weaponisation has definitely been on the cards since the Clinton administration when the concept of “full spectrum dominance” was extended to “space control.” The Rumsfeld Space Commission report, the image above depicts the front cover, spoke of conducting military operations in and through space. Mid course ballistic defence has anti satellite capabilities, certainly more than it does anti missile capabilities, and I have always felt BMD to be, certainly in part, a trojan horse for the weaponisation of space.
China has conducted ASAT tests, as has Russia. Current US initiatives are presented as responses to these Russian and Chinese moves, but the current push for space weaponisation has earlier antecedents as shown. Furthermore, Russia and China during the Clinton-Bush-Obama eras called for a space arms control treaty, which the US rejected and then dragged its feet on.
Washington, much like during the early days of the ballistic missile era, calculates it has an advantage, as it does, and seeks to lock that technological and strategic advantage in. This is to be expected on standard Realist International Relations 101 grounds. The current period, when Republicans control both Houses and the White House, is going to be critical for the weaponisation of space as its advocates sense a golden opportunity to push it forward.
In April the head of the House Armed Services Committee Strategic Forces Subcommittee, Michael Rogers, called for a separate “Space Corps” that is separate from the United States Air Force, much like the Marine Corps.
Rogers, chairman of the House Armed Services strategic forces subcommittee, said the Space Corps concept would be the first step in spinning off space operations into an independent branch of the military…
…Despite the Air Force being a “world-class military service,” space should not be led by people who “get up each morning thinking about fighters and bombers…you cannot organize, train, and equip in space the way you do a fighter squad,”
Now as you would expect the Air Force opposes this. In testimony a few days ago to the Senate Armed Services Strategic Forces Subcommittee the chief of staff of the Air Force stated
“Anything that separates space and makes it unique and different, relative to all of the war-fighting missions that we perform that are reliant on space, I don’t think that will move us in the right direction at this time,” he said in a Senate Armed Services Committee strategic forces subcommittee hearing
His reasoning was also interesting
The Air Force needs to figure out how it can apply its existing tactics, techniques and procedures in space instead of seeing it merely as an area from which to “report, sense and monitor”
The weaponisation of space, where space becomes actively contested as much as ground, sea and air are, will follow upon organisational restructures, which it mandates, and the very existence of this organisational debate demonstrates that we are well and truly heading toward the overt weaponisation of space.
That is the first point I would like to make.
The second point is that the Air Force is attempting to head a Space Corps off at the pass through high level space command changes. For example, at the Senate Armed Services Strategic Forces Subcommittee hearing referred to above, it was revealed that the commander of US Air Force Space Command, a three star general, has been elevated to also serve as US Strategic Command Joint Forces Space Component Commander, and gaining an extra fourth star in the process.
This, to no small degree, can be interpreted as streamlining the space chain of command in order to weaken the case for a separate Space Corps. But it also means that the US Air Force Space Commander will also be given a warfighting remit, an important change and a barometer of where the space pendulum is swinging.
As Bruce Weeden comments in the above linked article
Add to that the elevation of the JFCC Space to four-star level, the bolstering of the Air Force role in space warfighting and the shortening of the joint command structure and you’ve got some serious improvements to how America will fight in space
Notice that Rep Rogers stated that Air Force doctrine is not applicable in space, so partly mandating the formation of a separate Space Corps whereas the chief of staff of the Air Force spoke of integrating Air Force doctrine to space operations.
One of the things that the Air Force promoted early in its days, both when part of the US Army and then when separate from it, was the idea of “air power” with doctrines of strategic bombing right at its core.
The case for a separate Space Corps will be made so much the easier when it too is accompanied by doctrines of “space power” which are unique to the high frontier. I submit that as the debate between advocates and critics of a space corps intensifies so will debate on the meaning and significance of space power and space doctrine.
It probably wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that the US Air Force laments a prospective US Space Corps more than it does Russian and Chinese anti satellite weapons.