Earlier this week, Congress approved the 2020 National Defense Authorization Act. Among its other provisions, the legislation has officially created the U.S. Space Force, which will become the sixth branch of the U.S. military — after the Navy, Army, Marines, Coast Guard, and Air Force.
Although the legislation authorizes the creation of the U.S. Space Force, it does so in a cautious way. The U.S.S.F. will initially be created under the Department of the Air Force, and it won’t be able to start hiring new service members. Instead, to reduce redundancy and maximize efficiency, no new “billets” are authorized, which means that the U.S.S.F. will use existing personnel from the Air Force Space Command to staff the new branch. That means that, at least initially, the U.S.S.F. will have a very strong Air Force feel to it. During its first year, the Space Force will establish a headquarters, and the President is empowered to appoint a Chief of Space Operations, who will report to the Secretary of the Air Force and be a member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
What, exactly, will the U.S. Space Force do? The legislation identifies its core functions as follows: “protect the interests of the United States in space; deter aggression in, from, and to space; and conduct space operations.” That’s a pretty broad mission. You can read one recently retired Air Force General’s view of the case for the Space Force, the need to seize the “high ground” of space, and the need to counter actions by the Chinese government in space, here. His remarks also indicated that significant new technology has already been developed, and is currently being developed, that will help the U.S.S.F. fulfill its broad mission. We can expect to see some advances in satellites, spacecraft, communications, space transportation, robotics, and life support technologies, among others, as the U.S.S.F. gets underway in earnest. And don’t be surprised to see contracts awarded to SpaceX and other private space technology and exploration companies.
When the creation of the U.S.S.F. was first suggested, some people made fun of it as a silly Buck Rogers adventure, and others bemoaned the official militarization of space as inconsistent with the notion of space as the peaceful final frontier. Congress, however, clearly saw a strategic need for a new branch of the service to focus on space, and the legislation approving the creation of the Space Force passed by overwhelming, bipartisan majorities. The U.S. Space Force is here, and it signals a new era in the “Space Race.” Exactly what that new era will look like will be sketched out in the next few years.