War in space may sound like sci-fi, or at the very least defunct Reagan-era initiatives. So what exactly is the U.S. military space program?
In 1985, the U.S. Space Command was created, in order to combine Army, Air Force, and Navy efforts in space, according to the University of Iowa.
This included space-based support for ground forces, protection of U.S. satellites, denying an enemy access to space, and protecting the U.S. against ballistic missiles.
It was a command on the same level as the Special Operations Command or the Pacific Command, answerable directly to the Department of Defense.
In 2002, however, the mission of USSPACECOM was integrated into the new U.S. Strategic Command, which oversees global surveillance, reconnaissance, and nuclear deterrence. The mission remains the same, however.
As mentioned before, there are space capabilities in all three branches of the U.S. military, all coordinated by the Strategic Command:
These are their capabilities:
Air Force Space Command
Commander: General John Hyten
Size: Approximately 38,000
Flying 31 satellites around the Earth twice a day to make sure coverage is available 24 hours a day, the Air Force operates the Global Positioning System (GPS) used by most mobile devices today.[contextly_auto_sidebar id=”o9bnBmpM0ozYWgUuuXnV1vXZykoxOikj”]
It also provides early-warning systems for ballistic missile defense using both radar and satellites.
Of course, these systems also need to be protected, which is the domain of the Air Force. To do this, they operate satellites intended to track other satellites, as well as orbiting space junk (a potential threat we covered here).
Naval Network Warfare Command
Actually mostly a cyberspace command (and hence organized under USSTRATCOM’s Cyber Command), the NNWC is also responsible for providing Navy units with space-based reconnaissance by using the capabilities of other agencies.
However, lines are somewhat blurred with certain Navy units. While the NNWC doesn’t command them, weapon systems such as the Aegis have the capability to shoot down satellites in orbit.
This was demonstrated in 2008 after the U.S. shot down a satellite, after China did the same. Part of STRATCOM’s mission is to be able to deny opponents access to space.
Army Space and Missile Defense Command
Commander: Lieutenant General David Mann
Size: 2,250, according to a USASMD spokesman.
This command oversees the Army’s force enhancement operation, meaning tracking (pdf) both friendly and enemy forces, providing intelligence for commanders and soldiers on the ground.
It also operates missile defense systems, both domestically and in the field (including recent test of an anti-mortar laser gun).
USASMDC also supplies NASA with astronauts, and has its own Future Warfare Center (pdf) for research into new ways it can accomplish it troop support mission.
What’s on the horizon?
The U.S. satellite network, which the military is increasingly reliant on, is still very vulnerable. Not only are they inadequately defended against missile attacks, but they could also be “blinded” by electronic jammers and lasers
Placing weapons of mass destruction in orbit has been made illegal by the Outer Space Treaty of 1967, but there are no provisions for missiles or other weapons fired from Earth into space.
There are, however, talks between the EU and the U.S. of creating an international space coalition to emphasise cooperation over conflict, and reduce the chances of mishaps and misunderstandings if, for instance, a nation decides to shoot down one of its own satellites as a test.