While the Pentagon has questioned the need for a dedicated Space Force, the U.S. is already a signatory to multiple space treaties that spell out its obligations in the final frontier. And there are already a number of missions being done by other forces that would clearly be the purview of an independent Space Force.
Here are nine things the Space Force must do — and two things it can’t.
They probably won’t need so many graphical overlays to do it, though.
Protect American satellites
American satellites are one of the most important parts of modern, digital infrastructure. They’re also extremely vulnerable. They’re under constant threat of striking debris that’s already flying through orbit and China and Russia both have demonstrated the capabilities to bring one down at any time.
A Space Force would likely be tasked with building countermeasures to protect these valuable assets. Oncoming missiles could be confused with jamming or brought down with lasers — but lasers can also serve as an offensive weapon against enemy satellites. Additionally, some spacefaring nations, including the U.S., are developing technologies that could allow them to seize enemy satellites and steer them into danger.
Tactical battles in space sound complicated.
(U.S. Air Force)
Identify enemy killer satellites and template attacks against them
Speaking of which, the Space Force will likely need intelligence assets to identify satellites with offensive capabilities and template ways to neutralize them quickly in a space war. Satellites could be the U-boats of a future conflict, and the best way to stop them before they can hide amidst the space junk is to take them out at the first sign of conflict.
Satellites are expensive. And hard to make. And worse to replace.
(U.S. Air Force)
Ensure plans for the replacement constellations are viable
But there’s no way that American defenses could stop all — or likely even the majority of — attacks. Luckily, DARPA and other agencies are already testing potential ways to rapidly rebuild capabilities after an attack.
They’ve tested launching moderate-sized satellites from F-16s as well as sending up rockets with many small satellites that work together to achieve their mission, creating a dispersed network that’s harder to defeat.
(Graphic by U.S. Air Force)
Figure out how to destroy space debris
We mentioned space debris earlier — and it’s important for a few reasons. First, it’s a constant threat to satellites. But more importantly for strategic planners, most methods of quickly destroying an enemy’s satellite constellation will create thousands (if not millions) of pieces of debris that could eventually destroy other satellites in orbit, including those of the attacking nation.
So, to create a credible threat of using force against other nations’ satellites, the U.S. will need a plan for destroying any space debris it creates. The most pragmatic solution is to create weapons that can kill satellites without creating debris, like the lasers and killbots. But those same lasers and killbots could be used to clear out debris after satellites are killed with missiles.
China has proposed a “space broom,” armed with a weak laser that could clear debris (and, purely coincidentally, might also be used to destroy satellites).
Air Force graphics are as complicated as Army graphics. I wonder if everyone thought it was the graphics that decided who got the Space Force? (You win this round, Air Force).
(U.S. Air Force)
Protect American industry in space
The U.S. military branches are often called to protect national interests. Among those national interests is business — and business in space is likely to be massive in the near future, from private space companies teasing the possibility of tourism to asteroid mining to zero-gravity manufacturing.
Of course, building the infrastructure to do these things in space will be expensive and extremely challenging. To make sure that America can still gather resources and manufacture specialized goods — and that the military and government can buy those goods and resources — the Space Force will be tasked with protecting American interests in space.
Just sitting here waiting to rescue someone.
(NASA photo by Tracy Caldwell Dyson)
Another important task is recovering survivors of any accidents, collisions, or other mishaps in orbit. America has already agreed to a treaty stating that all spacefaring states will assist in the rescue of any astronaut in distress, but rescues in space will likely be even more problematic than the already-challenging rescues of submariners.
There is little standardized equipment between different space agencies, though Russia does share some matching equipment thanks to their access to Space Shuttle schematics when overhauling the Soviet space program. The Space Force will likely have to figure out ways to rescue astronauts and civilians in space despite equipment differences.
Yeah, you guys can hitch a ride. Did you bring your own spacesuit or do you need a loaner?
(Photo by U.S. Air Force Senior Airman Ian Dudley)
Provide orbital rides for other branches
While the Marine Corps has already done some preliminary work on how to move its Marines via orbit, little planning exists for the nitty gritty details of moving troops through space. All of the branches will likely develop some tools for moving personnel, but Congress will likely demand that the branches prevent unnecessary redundancy — like how the Army has its own boats, planes, and helicopters, but has to get most of its rides from the Navy and Air Force.
The Space Force will be the pre-eminent branch in space, and will likely need the spaceports and shuttles to match.
Learn to steer (or at least divert) asteroids
Currently, NASA has the lead on detecting near-Earth objects and preventing collisions, but the military generally gets the bigger budget and, as they say, “with great funds comes great responsibility.”
Luckily for them, there are groups happy to help. The B612 is a group of concerned scientists and engineers that is focused on developing plans to divert asteroids. So, Space Force can just focus on training and execution.
Do a bunch of paperwork
Of course, the Space Force won’t be all shuttle pilots and flight attendants — the admin folks will have a lot of paperwork to do, too. Another U.S. space treaty obligates America to provide details of every object it launches into space as well as every person who enters space.
All of those details that get passed when personnel enter or leave a country will also have to get passed when they enter or leave space, necessitating an admin corps who join the space force exclusively to pass paperwork.
If you think that makes the Space Force more boring, just wait until you see the things they, by treaty, aren’t allowed to do.
Super sexy — but also not allowed to be based on the Moon.
(U.S. Air Force)
No carrying weapons of mass destruction
The Outer Space Treaty of 1967 bans any spacefaring nation from putting weapons of mass destruction in orbit or basing them on celestial bodies, like the Moon. So, no Space Marines with nuclear missiles in orbit. Rockets, bullets, and lasers? Maybe.
Nukes? No way. Gotta leave those back on Earth.
No building military bases on celestial bodies
Even worse news for Space Force personnel: They can’t have any dedicated military bases on celestial objects either, also due to that same Outer Space Treaty of 1967. The U.S. will need to renegotiate the treaty, build more space stations, or keep nearly all Space Force personnel on Earth, only sending them up for short missions.