US President Donald Trump formally proposed the establishment of the sixth arm of the US Armed Forces – the Space Force, on 18 June 2018. The other five are the Army, Air Force, Marine Corps, Navy and Coast Guard. A space force will be a military branch that conducts space warfare; it does not take rocket science to guess that.
However, this sphere of warfare has entered a phase of development where it is considered feasible to threaten a nation’s security through the use of space, for delivery of means which can cause physical harm to an adversary’s civilian or military resources. The nuclear lexicon terms ‘counter value’ or ‘counter force’ would then be replaced by ‘counter space’.
The Original ‘Star Wars’ Programme ::
This had been conceived almost 35 years ago when US President Ronald Reagan allocated USD 2 billion, as part of the Strategic Development Initiative (SDI), for the development of a missile shield to defend the US from incoming Soviet ballistic missiles, which made use of space for their transit from the Soviet mainland or the ocean to the US heartland.
Named the ‘Star Wars’ programme then, it was also reputed to have hastened the Soviet collapse as psychologically the program impinged on the minds of the Soviet leadership as a phenomenally expensive resource to compete against.
Through the last 30 years’ efforts were afoot to keep space out of the ambit of an arms race and keep it free as an international common. However intense rivalry has finally broken that avowed resolution and behind it are a few reasons.
1. First, is the speed with which satellite technology in aid of communication and surveillance has developed, enhancing strategic and operational transparency.
2. Second, is a takeoff from that, with networks developing at hurtling speed. Paralysis of adversary networks (network centric warfare) through physical destruction of space-based vehicles, aids such warfare.
3. Third is the development of hypersonic technology, or the ability to send a vehicle (as a weapon) into space at Mach 7 or seven times the speed of sound, making it untraceable by current technology available with the US. Russia and China are both known to possess this.
4. Fourth and last, is something that appeared as science fiction during the Cold War – directed energy weapons with laser as the prime source of energy.
Space Programs in US, Russia, China ::
It has now reached a level of development where the deployment in space, of platforms generating such energy is feasible. The speed at which such energy can dwell from weapon to target is an amazing Mach 872,705, or the speed of light, because laser after all is amplified light – and in this context, more like the proverbial ‘death ray’. While there is much secrecy behind programs which are being developed in the US, UK, Germany, Russia and China, it is well known that threshold technology is at a stage where resources may be placed in surface-based vehicles or aircraft, but in all probability the first would be in space based platforms.
The United States has publicly projected that if it leaves its satellites vulnerable to new Russian and Chinese weapons, the likelihood that these weapons will be used increases.
Thus, a defensive stance is put out but without an offensive content, no defense is complete. Hence, much like nuclear weapons, this could well be all about deterrence through threats and counter threats, without employment of such weapons as elements of warfare.
Although it could be argued that since physical harm to human populations is not envisaged as the focus of warfare in space, the actual employment against platforms to punch holes in missile defenses or paralyze networks, could be a live possibility. Only intense war gaming of such situations is likely to provide different options with their commensurate fallout.
New Domain of Warfare Required ::
What is rational is that, with a huge domain beyond land, oceans and air, and the fast speed of development of empowering technology, providing a separate arm of war fighting is a must. Besides technology, there is the entire realm of operational doctrine and continuing research and development for a new domain of warfare. The US Air Force may have resisted this up to a point given the fact that it has its own Space Command. It is well known that the Chief of Staff of the US Air Force publicly voiced opposition to the idea of “Space Corps or Force”, as should have been expected.
However, the US has experienced such situations, to the benefit of its national interest.
No better example comes to mind than the Goldwater Nichols Act of 1986 by which the theater concept and integration of the US Armed Forces was legislated, despite intense resistance from individual arms of the Forces. President Trump could not have imagined this issue overnight, and it is quite evident that deep study went into it. The march of space technology would shortly make it extremely difficult to focus on two major domains which demand almost equal attention. The decision is really an ode to the strategic culture of the US.
India’s ‘Decision Fatigue’ ::
In India successive governments have grappled with the proposals for greater integration of the Services, and the theatre concept without success, primarily due to lack of strategic insight and internecine infighting for primacy among the Services. Even the setting up of the much needed Special Forces Command, Cyber Command and Aerospace Command, remains in decision paralysis. The political authorities could empower themselves with much greater strategic awareness and take expeditious political decisions.
With specific reference to space there would be parallel demands in India to mirror the US decision.
However, with very limited resources in the field of space, the Indian Air Force must remain the prime controller of air and space. It has the capability and experience to develop necessary doctrines through deep study of space technology. India’s time for defending its space-based assets or preventing the use of space for transit of weapons against its interests, may come sooner than anticipated.
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