What the Space Force is, and isn't

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The year-old Space Force has taken on galactic proportions in the public imagination, ranging from visions of American troops digging trenches on the moon to spaceships patrolling other worlds in the name of democracy.

It is also still closely associated with former President Donald Trump, who championed it as a major policy goal and a popular rallying cry on the campaign trail, fueling its potential as a punchline and a Hollywood parody and even drawing the service in with its otherworldly ad campaign.

While cosmic ambitions are the long-term vision of some military space strategists, the Space Force’s primary mission these days seems to be separating fact from fiction, and often science fiction.

“People get confused between what NASA does and what the military does,” said former Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson, who oversaw the establishment of the new service. “I think probably some of the recruiting advertising may have contributed to that somewhat. There was something about maybe your purpose on this Earth isn’t on this Earth.”

The extent to which the launch of the Space Force has failed to dock with reality was on display on Tuesday when it was the target of ridicule by none other than the new White House press secretary.

But it’s time to bring it back to Earth. “People who go into the Space Force either buy satellites or run satellites,” Wilson said. “And you do that from the ground.”

So here’s a quick primer on what the Space Force is — and what it isn’t.

What does it do?

Headquartered in the Pentagon, the Space Force is an independent branch of the military that was carved out of the Air Force beginning in December 2019. It has its own chief of space operations, four-star Gen. Jay Raymond, who like the heads of the five other military branches is also a member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Incoming! It is responsible for operating and defending military satellites and ground stations that provide communications, navigation and Earth observation, such as the detection of missile launches.

For example, it alerted U.S. troops in Iraq in January 2020 of incoming missiles so they had adequate time to take defensive measures, according to Gen. David Thompson, its second in command.

GPS: It also operates the network of Global Positioning System, or GPS, satellites, that was originally developed by the Air Force but made available to the public and has contributed at least $1.4 trillion alone to the American economy, according to the National Institute of Standards and Technology.

“That’s everything from paying at the pump when you get gas to using your ATM machine, your smart phone that is giving you GPS directions,” explained Air Force Col. Matt Anderson, outreach director for the Space Force Association, a nonprofit advocacy group. “It’s no secret that Russia and China have made extreme gains in the last couple decades and they have actually shown the ability to threaten some of our assets in space.”

Big job: The importance of the GPS mission cannot be overstated, Wilson said. “Why should I care? Half of the military satellites provide GPS to the world. They give you your blue dot on your phone. Every smartphone has a GPS receiver in it, pretty much. That doesn’t come from the telephone company. That comes from satellites in space run by the United States military. There’s like 34, 35 GPS satellites. That’s probably half the satellites the military runs.”

Jammers: To deter potential enemies from trying to damage or destroy those satellites, the Space Force also has in its arsenal a ground-based “jammer” that can block the transmissions of an adversary’s satellites. It is also believed to have at its disposal other offensive space capabilities.

Tracking junk: Another mission involves tracking space debris, such as satellites that are no longer in operation, discarded rocket boosters or other “space junk” — more than 26,000 objects in all — that could interfere with other spacecraft or astronauts.

Who’s idea was it?

There is no doubt that Trump elevated the need for an independent branch of the armed forces dedicated to space operations. He issued a presidential directive ordering its establishment and included it in his Pentagon budget request to Congress for fiscal year 2020.

But it was far from his idea. In fact, Democrats and Republicans had previously been pushing for a separate “Space Corps” within the Air Force in the face of Pentagon resistance even before Trump claimed the idea as his own.

“Bear in mind that it was the Congress,” said Ken Peterman, president of government systems at Viasat, which provides satellite services to the Space Force. “Trump may have approved it or become the person that signed off on it but this was an initiative that was born in Congress.”

How big is it?

If space is vast, the military branch now responsible for it was purposely designed to be relatively small by Pentagon standards, due to concerns in both parties about creating another out-of-control military bureaucracy.

It now has 16,000 personnel, known as guardians, making it by far the smallest military branch. By comparison, the size of the Marine Corps is roughly 180,000 men and women under arms.

And while it is a separate branch, the Space Force falls under the Air Force Department, which handles about 75 percent of its support functions, such as logistics, personnel management, and business and IT systems. Again the best analogy would be the Marine Corps, which is also a separate service but is part of the Navy Department.

The Space Force’s first annual budget, for the fiscal year that began in October, was $15.5 billion. That’s roughly 0.02 percent of the annual Pentagon budget.

Where is it?

Two of its primary locations are Vandenberg Air Force Base in California and Patrick Air Force Base in Florida, where the service manages “spacelift operations,” the launch of satellites for the military, intelligence agencies and NASA.

It also increasingly leases services to commercial space companies and also supports the launch of astronauts to the International Space Station.

Other locations include a trio of bases in Colorado — Peterson, Schriever and Buckley — and Los Angeles Air Force Base in California, home of the Space and Missile Systems Center.

In all, 23 units nationwide that were part of the Air Force were folded into the new branch, including weapon laboratories, test facilities and intelligence personnel that focused on space operations.

The Space Force has plans to eventually rename some of its locations “space bases.”

And like the Air Force, the Space Force is also drawing new officers from the Air Force Academy, which graduated its first 86 cadets in April that were commissioned directly into the Space Force.

What it’s not

Not part of the Space Force, however, is the separate U.S. Space Command, which was reestablished in Colorado Springs in 2019 and relies heavily on the Space Force but draws on troops with expertise in space operations from all military branches.

“We have seen that really confuse people,” said Anderson, who is a liaison to Space Command. “There is a need to continue to educate the American public.”

That also means making clear why it’s here, he said. “We do not want war in space,” Anderson said. “We are trying to deter any conflict in space. However, if deterrence fails the United States needs to be in position to defend the American way of life, which depends on space every day.”

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