The United States Space Force was created in 2019 when the paperwork from a multi-year, multi-administration, bi-partisan reform effort finally wound its way into the Oval Office. It was not Donald Trump’s idea, Indeed, it was not a new idea, and is not a uniquely US idea either, both the Russian Federation and China both also having waffled over the years about the proper place for space defense within their respective armed forces.
A US military space service was first proposed in 1958, and after decades of priority juggling, seriously considered again in 1982. Instead, space defense activities scattered across various branches came under the control of a central cross-service command, Air Force Space Command. But by 2001, a bipartisan space commission argued that increasingly vital space defense matters were being given short shrift and recommended creation of a space corps between 2007 and 2011. Another bipartisan proposal in Congress would have created a U.S. Space Corps in 2017, and finally in December of 2019, the United States Space Force Act reorganized Air Force Space Command and other space defense elements into the United States Space Force, creating the first new independent military service since the Army Air Forces were reorganized as the U.S. Air Force in 1947 as an independent branch under the Department of the Air Force in the same way the Marine Corps is a branch under the Department of the Navy.
The Joint Interagency Combined Space Operations Center (JICSpOC now the National Space Defense Center at Schriever Air Force Base) was a response to an Obama-era incursion in which a Russian spacecraft in 2015 maneuvered around the geostationary belt, came close to French and Italian military communications satellites and parked itself between two Intelsat satellites in geosynchronous orbit for five months. That center evolved to what is now the NSDC
USSF currently comprises about 8,500 service professionals, called guardians, managing 77 spacecraft, multiple launch sites, a global network of tracking facilities, and all manner of threat detection capabilities, including anti-ballistic missile radars, orbital debris tracking, deep space threat detection, and (soon, if not already) optical scanning for on orbit threats.
USSF does currently have two astronauts, but only because they were in the Air Force when they applied to NASA and were later transferred to USSF. There are no plans for USSF space stations, moon bases, or orbital battleships, but if space commerce grows as it now looks like it will, some near-future crewed space capability is certain.
In the not-so-near future? You tell us.
Over the past 50 years, the US built a system of ground-based optical and radar space sensors known as the Space Surveillance Network. The most recent addition is a $341 million radar site to be developed by Northrop Grumman by 2025, the first of three projected new deep-space radars to be located around the world.
The military also relies on the Geosynchronous Space Situational Awareness Program (GSSAP) satellite constellation to monitor the geostationary orbit belt. Built by Northrop Grumman, GSSAP was a state secret until revealed by Air Force Space Command in 2014.
Pentagon planners are interested in using phased array antennas to beam power from space to troops on the ground.
USSF manages the US GPS constellation, which is essential to navigation, commerce, and such mundane activities as using an ATM or buying pretty much anything through a point-of-sale terminal to say nothing of its military applications. Among other things, the atomic clocks on the GPS constellation enable a variety of commerce, security, and cryptography technologies.
Anything in space is comparatively lightweight and vulnerable. That makes anything in space a potential target.
Which makes the militarization of space to some extent inevitable.
People misbehave. If enough people go into space, there will be crimes to be investigated, smuggling to be stopped, arms to be intercepted, espionage, safety violations, permitting violations, legal conundrums.
China is opening satellite “Super factories” through have a combined production capacity out of all proportion to any known civilian purpose, raising fears the real goal may be to overwhelm the ability of foreign adversaries to identify, track, or disable their military satellites.
No one wants war in space, as it would affect everyone equally. One of USSF’s jobs is to work with other branches to prevent anti-satellite weapons from ever reaching space, blowing things up, and creating debris fields.
The Chinese and Russian Federation have both created a huge cloud of debris by testing direct-assent anti-satellite weapons. Although Chinese satellites make up only 7 percent of the total number of satellites in orbit, China accounts for nearly 25 percent of the total amount of space debris, mainly due to a single 2007 antisatellite test that dramatically increased the danger of on-orbit collision for everyone.
China is known to be developing a wide range of military space technologies, including direct-ascent kinetic kill vehicles, co-orbital satellites, directed-energy weapons, jammers, and cyber capabilities.
The Chinese Shijian-21 spacecraft docked with a defunct Beidou-2 navigation satellite and towed it out of geostationary orbit. But we only know that because a private company helping the US military with “space domain situational awareness,” watched them do it.
The Chinese Shijian-17 and Shijian-21 spacecraft have grappling arms that could be used to disabling other satellites.
The Russian Federation tested an offensive weapon that provocatively shadowed an operational, high-value American surveillance satellite, then when the satellite maneuvered away, deployed what is believed to have been a dummy offensive charge.
Threat detection can include simply studying how a satellite behaves to see if it’s acting the way it should for the type it is and the operator who launched it.
USSF plans to launch a satellite, likely with a powerful telescope, into cislunar space. The satellite will be called the Cislunar Highway Patrol System or, you guessed it, CHPS. One reason may be concern about space objects placed into cislunar space by other governments that are then lost by the existing space situational awareness networks focused on low Earth orbit and geostationary orbit and can then swing around the Moon and attack a US military satellite in geostationary space.
Some services currently provided by USSF may in the future be better serves by the commerce department. For example, USSF provides a sort of “air traffic control in space” to prevent collisions of operational spacecraft, but if USSF were to start cleaning up debris, assets that can do that would be dual-use (they could also be used offensively) which might lead to resistance from other nations, even international incidents.
Many Americans may not be aware, there is also a US Office of Space Commerce which is part of NOAA (The National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration) under the U.S. Department of Commerce.