The future of the Space Force isn’t on Earth — it’s in the solar system

Artist's rendition of a futuristic space navy. Credit: GoodFon / Defotfaith

Artist’s rendition of a futuristic space navy. Credit: GoodFon /

By Rick Tumlinson,
Published by SpaceNews, 20 March 2024

At the ripe age of five, it is clear that the United States Space Force, while dominated by old thinking, still doesn’t know what it wants to be when it grows up, and is split among multiple different areas of focus. The challenge is that it has to grow up fast.

It seems the Force’s leadership are of three minds: those who look down, focusing on ground operations, those who look around at orbital space and those who look up and out.

Those who believe the Space Force should focus on what is happening on the ground refer to its support function for the joint force of all the current branches of the military. This ranges from communications, creating and protecting space-based command and control systems, observation and, in its most visionary (and ominous) form, operation of space-to-ground weapons. 

Those focused on looking around are concerned with what is happening in orbital space. While there is some overlap here with the downlookers, their concerns range from orbital debris, to protecting U.S. space assets like communication and spy satellites from adversaries, to watching and being able to knock out the assets of adversaries, for instance by taking down enemy satellite systems in time of war.

Those whose eyes and minds are focused upward are the most future-thinking of the Space Force. They want a space navy, with the solar system as its ocean. They see the Force’s job as securing the ability of America and her allies to travel through, live in and develop space. Their concerns include China and Russia taking the first grab at and therefore forever owning the resources and high ground on the moon, in free space, on Mars and beyond.

But this is not a shared vision. The downlookers see the Force as an extension of everything space-related the other services have been doing for decades, just rolled into a new one-stop shop. They not only don’t want to rock the boat when it comes to defining new roles vis a vis the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marines, they don’t even see the need for boats — although some are pushing for the ability to fly through space to quickly deliver soldiers and support anywhere on Earth.

Proponents of the Space Force as a means of securing control and dominance of Earth’s orbit have already begun their work to advance U.S. capabilities, such as hardening our space assets and the means to track and take out those of potential adversaries. Behind the scenes and in the black, they are creating new ways to keep signals flowing when things get hot, means of orbital maneuver, redundant systems, and ways to pluck the bad guy’s satellites from the skies — in some cases, literally. This role is, after all, a logical extension of traditional orbital space strategy.

“This new ocean”

It is the more visionary role of the Space Force that is losing out both in the Pentagon and the halls of Congress. Using satellites in space to support ground actions is easy to understand, and by extension, ensuring enemy systems are rendered inoperable makes logical sense to the more Earth-bound minds in charge. However, the idea of a real Space “Force” with spaceships and space-based robotics, crews and systems enabling it to operate in what 20th-century author Bill Burrows called “This New Ocean” reeks, to them, of science fiction. They are locked in a historically repetitive loop of not realizing what the next war will look like, and, if allowed to determine how the Space Force matures, are dooming the Force and the free peoples of Earth to losing the long war of expanding their domain, even if they win the short-term battle to control orbital space and the Earth below.

While part of an overall failure of all branches of the U.S. government, including NASA, to comprehend what is about to happen in space, let alone get ahead of it, this inability to turn their minds and imaginations upwards and outwards harkens back to many of the massive, history-changing strategic failures of all time. Nelson crossed the line of traditional thinking and the Spanish Navy at Trafalgar with his ships when the Spanish Admirals had followed convention and neatly lined themselves up, expecting him to do the same. Hitler’s armies famously skirted the so-called invincible Maginot line to take France using maneuver rather than the WWI model of entrenchment. Today, young techno whizzes are cutting and jumping the lines of entrenchment again in Ukraine as I write this, sending swarms of air, land and sea drones toward each other. And these, soon to be piloted by AI, will have soon-to-be-seen devastating effects on all of the world’s militaries. 

In all of these cases, conventional wisdom comforted those in command, while others reimagined what they saw in terms of the domain, the technology, and the traditional uses of those technologies, in some cases literally changing the geometry or dimension of the battle space. So, while the U.S. military sees its space assets as an extension of its terrestrial forces, and our space agency plods towards a redux of our first touch and go trips to the moon of the Apollo program, China will jump the Karman Line and leap over Low Earth Orbit into the solar system, taking cislunar space and beyond — permanently.

It will happen in two phases. In phase one, China is duplicating and competing with SpaceX’s revolutionary Starship, creating an extremely low-cost and industrial scale capability to fly payloads and people into space, including the ability to re-fuel there and travel between worlds. To those already feeling I’ve crossed into sci-fi land, recent news of China’s reusable rockets should be evidence enough. Right now, a half dozen Chinese teams are competing to match what SpaceX, Blue Origin and Rocket Lab are doing here.

Meanwhile, China is advancing its abilities to navigate and communicate with lunar assets. For example, most people missed that in the last weeks a Chinese rocket carrying navigation satellites destined to be placed in highly stable retrograde orbits between Earth and the moon failed. There will be more.

Then, look at China’s plans and programs for the future, which, unlike those of our government agency, are moving close to their announced schedules. We know Chinese space leadership is firmly set on dominating the moon and the resources of space itself, such as asteroids. Again, they don’t just say it; they mean it, and they don’t just mean it; they are doing it.

The next phase is already underway as China explores and surveys the best locations to build its first lunar bases. China will establish rights of non-interference at the most treasured lunar locations, then stretch the meaning of such ideas to offer cover for land grabs. Think island-building in the Pacific. If this happened on Earth, within a short time, U.S. or other allied ships or aircraft would transit across the middle of the place to establish that no nation has the right to claim such a valuable resource for itself and especially has no right to bar others from entering such an area.

Unfortunately, if this were to happen on the moon in the next decade or two, the U.S. could do nothing about it. We have no Space Navy to do the job. We do have a Space Force, but given those in control of it today do not see the need for such capabilities tomorrow, the game would be over. Checkmate. Of course, we might cobble together a mission to do the job, but as my grandfather used to say, it’s too late to build a fire department the night of the fire.

Yes, NASA and our often-abused private sector are making their plans for operations beyond Earth orbit and the moon. Still, none of them include plans for protecting themselves from a uni-state competitor, wherein a nation’s science, industry, and military are one and the same. It is not our way. 

While the challenge itself is years or perhaps decades away, it is only by recognizing it and starting to prepare now that the forces of freedom will avoid being outflanked in outer space. Also, the simple deterrent effect of visibly beginning to do so now may deter plans on the other side, saving everyone unnecessary confrontations in the future. The U.S. must begin today to develop the capabilities we will need in Earth’s orbit and beyond tomorrow or cede its leadership over tomorrow to others.

We do need a Space Force that can support the other branches in their traditional roles on the ground. We do need a Space Force that can take on the current and emerging challenges we face in Earth’s orbit. However, we must begin immediately to build a Space Force that is ready to protect our interests ten and 20 years from now on the moon and beyond, or we will have sacrificed the long game for the short win — and we will lose it all.

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