Stars Are Aligning For New Military Service Focused On Space

16 hours ago
Originally published on August 14, 2019 9:55 am
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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

The stars may be aligned for a new military service focused on space. The idea has been floated for 20 years, but President Trump has made it a talking point at his rallies.

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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Now we're going to have the Space Force because...

GREENE: Congress could fund this service in this year's annual defense bill.

NPR's Claudia Grisales reports.

CLAUDIA GRISALES, BYLINE: It's part of a space race that goes back to the launch of the Russian satellite Sputnik, but that benevolent world of space exploration and satellites is gone. Here's Defense Secretary Mark Esper warning of the new threats at his Senate confirmation hearing.

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MARK ESPER: Space is no longer a place from which we support combat operations or from which we look down upon the world and see what's happening. It is now a war-fighting domain, not because we made it that way but because the Russians and Chinese are making it that way.

GRISALES: Russia and China do have advanced technology to destroy satellites. This March, India join them.

JIM COOPER: We're kind of late to the party here.

GRISALES: That's Congressman Jim Cooper of Tennessee. He says critical communications rely on the security of U.S. satellites in space, that includes cellphones and GPS systems. It also includes the ability to launch nuclear weapons. And one day, that precious infrastructure could come under attack from a hostile nation.

Even more frightening, if a U.S. satellite is destroyed, we might not know the perpetrator. Worries over these threats have grown over the last two decades. Kaitlyn Johnson is a scholar at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

KAITLYN JOHNSON: The Gulf War really showcased what kind of an enabler space could be for military systems. It was the first time that space was significantly used in a conflict zone. And it's often referred to as the first space war.

GRISALES: The U.S. built its satellites without any defenses. Former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld chaired a commission to study the United States' role in space. In January 2001, his commission said U.S. space interest should be recognized as a top national security priority. But that mission was derailed with the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

Cooper, who gets secret briefings as a member of the House Armed Services Committee, says that was naive. And with other countries devoting significant time and money to space, the U.S. needs to play catch-up. Many of the threats in space are classified, but those in the know, like Cooper, are spooked.

COOPER: We would just know that suddenly everything stopped working. And just think of the horror of that - no Internet, no TV, no phone calls.

GRISALES: Cooper helped spearhead what was Space Corps in 2017, but that was rejected by the Pentagon and the Senate. But once the president got onboard, Congress went ahead and created plans for a U.S. Space Service under the Air Force.

Supporters say this new service will finally prioritize U.S. efforts to protect its satellites and infrastructure. It would be modeled after the Marine Corps under the Navy. It would also mark the first new military service in more than 70 years. And that means new cash.

The White House has requested $14 billion to fund U.S. military space plans in the coming year. It will pay for a new headquarters, GPS technology, space launch systems and personnel support. That money means new federal jobs. Members of Congress see that as an opportunity for their state. Here's Senator Cory Gardner of Colorado.

CORY GARDNER: A lot of the work on GPS, our satellite, National Space Defense Center, is being done and carried out out of Colorado Springs. So it just makes sense from an efficiency standpoint and from a national security standpoint.

GRISALES: But he's not alone. Florida, California and even Alaska are vying to be home to the new service. Wherever it lands, this newfound momentum means even more crowds could be chanting for Space Force soon.

Claudia Grisales, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.