Russian and Chinese anti-satellite weapons testing has raised the profile of space conflict in recent years.
A handful of lawmakers are pushing for the creation of a new branch of the American military solely focused on deploying extraterrestrial power.
The members of congress, led by Alabama Rep. Mike Rogers, have included a provision creating a new Space Corps in the bill authorizing the next year of defense spending. The new branch would be a semi-independent force below the Air Force, as the Marine Corps is a subsidiary of the Navy.
Their efforts aren’t likely to succeed because of a lack of enthusiasm in the Senate, which must also approve the plan, and opposition from the White House. But they do send a message the U.S. is concerned about the orbital military aspirations of geopolitical rivals like China and Russia.
“Bottom line: Unless it gets introduced in the Senate, I don’t think the chances are very high of it making it all the way through,” Brian Weeden, a space expert at the Secure World foundation, told Quartz.
At the moment, the Air Force is responsible for most of U.S national security in space. The top brass there, backed by Defense Secretary James Mattis, have made clear they intend to hang on to their role, and that now isn’t the time for a major change in organization, calling the idea “a narrower and even parochial approach to space operations vice an integrated one we’re constructing.”
But in a signal that the concerns are being heard, the Air Force has reorganized its command structure to put a three-star general in charge of all its space programs. It has also made a point of trumpeting its advanced space vehicles.
Russian and Chinese anti-satellite weapons testing has raised the profile of space conflict in recent years after a post-Cold War lull in competition. Sophisticated electronic warfare technology used by Russia during its invasion of Ukraine to interrupt GPS and communications systems was another warning about the vulnerability of space systems. U.S. lawmakers want the military to be prepared.
The organizational problems these proposals are meant to solve—particularly that there are is no one person in charge of space security—are real. Coordinating budgets between the Air Force, the intelligence community and NASA has never been simple and has resulted in cost-overruns and conflicting regulations for companies that build space hardware for the government. A space command, its backers argue, could be a powerful voice to win funding from Congress for expensive space projects—which is one reason some of its opponents prefer to scotch it.
A middle ground, suggested by Weeden and others, is the creation of something more like a Space Coast Guard, that has law-enforcement and civil duties as well as military objectives when necessary. But perhaps because it offers a compromise, it hasn’t attracted major political backing.
One thing is for sure: This is only the beginning of the discussion of warfare in space. Cheaper access to orbit is likely to mean disruptive new conflicts in space, and the growing commercial importance of life beyond the atmosphere will naturally lead to more public attention. Rogers may not get his space corps this time around, but it doesn’t sound like he’s giving up yet.
“I’ve been shocked by the response from the Air Force leadership,” Rogers said at a recent hearing. “Did they miss where the Chinese and the Russians have already reorganized space operations?”