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Mocked No More, Space Force Raises U.S. Stakes For The Final Frontier

Created by Donald Trump four years ago, the new U.S. military branch embodies the strategic importance of space defense. Faced with competition from China and Russia, Washington is renewing its commitment (and drastically increasing the amount of money it devotes) to space — marking quite the reversal of fortune for Space Force, which not so long ago was the target of pastiche and mockery.

Cadets marching to start the U.S. Air Force Academy's Class of 2020 Graduation Ceremony.

Cadets marching as part of their U.S. Air Force Academy's Graduation Ceremony.

Véronique Le Billon

WASHINGTON — In a small, uniform-crowded room of the U.S. House of Representatives, Chance Saltzman takes his first budget test. Freshly appointed head of Space Force, he has the tenacity of a beginner: Saltzman is asking Congress to write him a check for more than $30 billion for the fiscal year starting on Oct. 1. This represents a 15% increase in just one year for this sixth branch of the U.S. armed forces that came into being barely four years ago.

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"Space is now undeniably a disputed battlefield. China and Russia define it as such, and are investing in it to undermine the American advantage. Both can put American assets at risk with cyberattacks or missiles," explains the general to members of the Defense Subcommittee in charge of allocating budget funds. Between Moscow's interference and Kyiv's use of Starlink's commercial satellites, "Russia's invasion of Ukraine showed us that space is going to be crucial in modern warfare," he explains to the congressmen.

"To date, no country has carried out a kinetic physical attack against another country's satellite, but four countries — the U.S., Russia, China and India — have successfully tested weapons against their own satellites," points out CSIS, a think-tank specializing in national security issues in its latest report on space forces.

Appointment ceremony for the newly-appointed commander of Space Training and Readiness Command, Brigadier General Timothy Sejba.

Space Training And Readiness Command/Facebook

The oldest satellite

Three thousand kilometers west of Washington, in the middle of a plain that ends in front of the majestic Rocky Mountains, Schriever military base in Colorado Springs (Colorado) is eagerly awaiting new funding. At the site entrance, where a line of cars grows as early as 7 a.m. to pass through the checkpoints, a brand-new Space Force sign has replaced the old U.S. Air Force logo.

The U.S. may well claim supremacy in the space field, but it needs to reinvest.

In the half-light of the windowless corridors of the 22nd squadron, which monitors satellite operations, a red flashing light indicates that those entering the site are not authorized for defense: conversations must be reduced to declassified level.

The U.S. may well claim supremacy in the space field, but it needs to reinvest. "The infrastructure was built in the 1970s and is now quite old," explains Lieutenant-Colonel Jaime Garcia. "When the number of satellites and contacts with them was not so large, it was fine. But there is more and more demand, and the number of satellites will continue to increase dramatically, so there's a need for modernization." This observation was made official in April in a report by the GAO, the federal audit office.

The same goes for the management of the GPS system, the U.S. Air Force's consumer showcase taken over by Space Force. Its uses go far beyond defense — "99% of my customers are not military", sums up Lieutenant-Colonel Robert Wray — but they are vital to the economy and daily life. The service is provided by a constellation of 31 active satellites, placed in a sparsely occupied orbit and monitored from the U.S. by a dozen team members in a blind room.

"If there's a problem with a satellite, we make it invisible by using redundancies," says Robert Wray. The oldest satellites are gradually being replaced — the oldest is 26 years old.

Members of the U.S. Space Command tour a United Launch Alliance facility at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station.


Pastiche-able beginnings

The announcement of Space Force's creation was made in a rose garden on Aug. 29, 2019. In front of the White House's Oval Office and under a blazing sun, that day Donald Trump introduced four-star General Jay Raymond, a U.S. Air Force veteran with 34 years of service, and appointed him head of the U.S. Space Command, a new operational division tasked with defending the United States from space.

The ideas associated with the creation of Space Force have been mocked, from the name to the logo.

"Our opponents are threatening earth's orbit with new technologies targeting U.S. satellites, which are essential to both battlefield operations and our way of life. Our freedom of action in space is also essential, to detect and destroy any missile launched against the United States," Trump said. A space unit did exist in the late 1980s, but George W. Bush merged it into another command after the 9/11 attacks, to free up resources. Since then, the U.S. Air Force has been in charge of space operations.

The inauguration certificate for Space Force, charged with training and preparing troops, was signed a few months later, on Dec. 20, 2019, in the Defense Budget Act.

Joe Biden has also backed the deployment of Space Force since his arrival at the White House in early 2021. Space Force's first steps have not been met with universal praise. The ideas associated with the creation of Space Force have been mocked, from the name "Guardians", resembling the Guardians of the Galaxy from the Marvel movies, to the Space Force logo that bears a strong resemblance to Star Trek imagery.

Donald Trump also suggested that his wife Melania should help design the new uniforms, "because of her flawless fashion sense", as reported by Time Magazine. This was a godsend for U.S. comedian Steve Carell (of The Office fame), who turned it into a hilarious pastiche series for Netflix.

The first steps of Space Force

Space Force's first challenge was to create a sense of belonging among soldiers transferred from the Air Force and newcomers alike. A motto (Semper Supra, "Always higher" in Latin), a song, logos galore.

While the most inventive minds have imagined astronaut soldiers fighting enemy forces with laser weapons, the reality of their missions is more prosaic: developers, computer engineers or aerospace engineers are mainly needed. "They talk a lot about fighting, but what they're really doing is providing a support function," says an industry expert.

The U.S. may well claim supremacy in the space field, but it needs to reinvest.

After recruitment and the creation of the new force's identity, one of its priorities was less than glamorous: reforming... the purchasing service. "Our old methods are too slow, respond too late to our needs and are too far behind the times to cope with the challenges we face today," said Space Force chief Chance Saltzman to industry stakeholders at the Space Symposium at Colorado Springs in April.

From Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, a Space X Falcon 9 rocket began launching the first satellites in a constellation designed to strengthen U.S. anti-missile defense. "The United States not only wants to renew its satellite fleets, but also to enter the constellation logic to increase its resilience and thus perpetuate its space superiority," says Colonel Laurent Rigal, liaison officer at the French Space Command in Colorado Springs.

With international law very weak and discussions at the UN unlikely to reach a rapid conclusion, the debate on space militarization remains open. For the first time, Space Force is requesting funding to develop satellite-based tools for detecting moving targets on the ground, a type of surveillance that until now has been carried out more by aircraft or drones.

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India Rail Info
Joydeep Sarkar

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