A New Battleground?

U.S. bid to create a space force threatens global peace

U.S. President Donald Trump signed the National Defense Authorization Act into law on December 20, 2019, paving the way for a U.S. Space Force. The sixth branch of the U.S. armed forces, it is supposed to undertake missions and operations in space, a move that might accelerate the militarization of space. It could initiate a global arms race in space and mire world security in greater uncertainties.

However, for now, the Space Force is facing fund and personnel problems as well as conflicts of interest and needs to go through multiple checks before becoming a reality.

A political tool

Space is an important advantage for the U.S. Its military strength relies heavily on space technology. All of its navigation and positioning intelligence and nearly 90 percent of strategic intelligence come from its space-based systems.

Since Trump took office, he has seen China and Russia as major competitors in the security field and a challenge in space. The Space Force was created to ensure the U.S. dominance in space is never challenged.

With the U.S. space capabilities spread across its Air Force, National Reconnaissance Office, Army and Navy, they have been restricted because of inefficient allocation of resources. In the Department of Defense alone, there are nearly 60 agencies commanding and controlling space resources. Moreover, budgets for equipment research and procurement in the space sector are often squeezed because they are not the priorities of the armed service branches.


The U.S. Air Force Space Command, established in 1985 for joint command and control of the Air Force, Army and Navy’s space forces, has merely 2,000 officers and soldiers, far from meeting operational requirements.

The Space Force is a tool to achieve Trump’s catchword Make America Great Again. Trump wants to ensure U.S. dominance in traditional areas of strength through restructuring and adjustment of armed forces. Meanwhile, he is also trying to attain dominance in new areas of warfare and to that end, had coveted space for a long time.

However, the space issue remains particularly vulnerable due to U.S. domestic political wrangling. The Trump administration has long faced pressure from both the Democratic Party and the Republican Party, as well as all walks of life. Proposals to establish a Space Force in the National Defense Authorization Act for the fiscal years of 2018 and 2019 were blocked by the Democrat-controlled Senate. In a divided government, Trump’s Space Force plan may be greatly compromised.

Under the National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal year 2020, the newly created Space Force is organized as a military service branch within the Department of the Air Force, on par with the Marine Corps and Coast Guard under the Department of the Navy. This means even though it is independent, the Space Force is still inferior to the three main military forces, which might be reluctant to transfer resources and power as all the armed services have already invested a lot in building up their space forces.

Previously, the space military system was highly integrated with other armed services. After the creation of the new force, these services might face problems at the operational level and inadequate personnel. The act as of now provides only for the transfer of personnel from the Air Force Space Command and the fate of other space forces remains hanging. In the future, the different departments may face more intense competition over interests and resources.

The Space Force will cost about $3.3 billion in its first year and about $13 billion in the first five years. With only $40 million allocated, the budget falls far short. With 16,000 personnel, it is also far from being an independent armed service. Under the most optimistic prediction, it will take at least 18 months for the Space Force to be operational. If Trump is reelected in November, the new branch will be effective only halfway through his second term.

Danger signals

Most countries have long reached consensus on the peaceful use of outer space. In the past, the U.S. proposed the space-based Star Wars Program and Brilliant Pebbles, a ballistic missile defense system, but neither of the programs has been practiced with actually deploying space weapons.

However, Trump’s overt identification of space as a battlefield and his aggressive weaponization of the outer space have broken the consensus, undermined the strategic balance between major countries and destabilized the global security order.

U.S. efforts to develop and deploy weapons in space have, to some extent, forced other countries to follow suit. In June 2019, NATO adopted a space strategy for the first time, saying it will prepare for war, for example, by attacking strategically important satellites or deploying weapons in space.

NATO member France said it would establish a space command to defend its satellites. Britain also scrambled to develop its own space capabilities and advance its space strategy.

In December 2019, Russia lifted the veil on its tightly guarded space-based missile warning system in response to U.S. moves. Also, Japan has increased spending on space in its budget for the fiscal year 2020. As the global space security dilemma escalates, the vision of peaceful development and utilization of space is seriously undermined.

Peace at stake

In recent years, U.S. efforts to contain China have intensified. The U.S. is pressing ahead with its Indo-Pacific Strategy to strengthen military deployment across the Indian Ocean and the Pacific Ocean, and launching technological and trade wars to curb China’s development.

The U.S. has already obstructed exchanges and cooperation with China through the Wolf Clause, a clause inserted into the budget bill for the fiscal year 2011, banning any China-U.S. joint scientific research activities related to NASA or coordinated by the Office of Science and Technology Policy under the White House.

China should not allow itself to be overwhelmed by the deployment of the Space Force. It should pursue outer space systems as planned in keeping with its economic development.

The international community, major countries in particular, should adopt a prudent and responsible attitude to safeguard peace in outer space. Countries should adhere to the consensus on peaceful use of outer space, resist weaponization and an arms race, and prevent turning the outer space into a new theater of war.

There is a greater urgency to start negotiating a legally binding instrument on outer space arms control. China should work with other countries to promote negotiations on the UN Space2030 agenda and build a global governance mechanism to realize the full potential of space for sustainable development.

China’s stance

At a press conference in December 2019, Foreign Ministry spokesperson Geng Shuang addressed a question on the establishment of a U.S. Space Force. Edited excerpts of his response follow:

In recent years, disregarding opposition from the international community, the U.S. has been pushing its space dominance strategy, going further down the path of weaponization of outer space and risking turning it into a new theater of warfare. Such moves are a serious breach of the consensus on peaceful use of outer space. They undermine global strategic balance and stability and pose a direct threat to peace and security in outer space. China is deeply concerned about and firmly oppose this.

The space security the U.S. has in mind is only security for itself while the fundamental purpose of the international community is to safeguard the common security of all humankind in outer space.

China stands for peaceful use of outer space and against weaponization of and arms race in outer space. Under current circumstances, there is greater relevance and urgency to initiate negotiation of a legally binding instrument on outer space arms control. We hope the international community, certain major countries in particular, will adopt a prudent and responsible attitude to safeguard lasting peace and tranquility in outer space and make sure it will not become a new battlefield.

The author is an assistant researcher with the Department for International and Strategic Studies, China Institute of International Studies

Source: Beijing Review