Future asterod mining activities will likely require protection from a future Space Force, just as the Navy defends sea lanes, but those commercial efforts could also support the force as well. (credit: Brian Versteeg/Deep Space Industries)
The United States Air Force was formed on September 18, 1947, by an act of Congress via the National Security Act of 1947. The US War Department created the first antecedent of the US Air Force as a part of the US Army, on August 1, 1907, but as aviation became more important to prosecution of various war efforts, the US Army Air Forces (USAAF) were formed. While notionally independent of the Army—during World War II they effectively functioned as an independent service branch—the USAAF was beholden to the priorities of the Army for funding. Many decision-makers felt that surface warfare should dictate the funding priorities of the air arm. Consequently, on July 26, 1947, President Harry S. Truman signed the National Security Act, which turned the USAAF into the United States Air Force as a separate branch within the Department of Defense.
With the launch of Sputnik in October 1957, the nation, by necessity, began to focus its attention to space in earnest. In response to increasing tensions between the former Soviet Union and the need for reconnaissance, the US Air Force initiated the Manned Orbiting Laboratory program, which was announced to the public in 1963, as a method for performing overhead reconnaissance. The program was terminated in 1969 when it became clear that satellites could perform the same task more cost-effectively.
While there is presently no human military presence in space, the entire military is functionally dependent on space as a domain of some of its most important assets. The US military, primarily led by the US Air Force, has a massive presence in space. Global reconnaissance, global weather, global positioning, missile warning, and communications have become the sine qua non of the US Air Force’s space presence. However, since Sputnik, space has generally not been a place of overt warfare; indeed, the Outer Space Treaty, agreed to by many nations, forbids weapons of mass destruction being stationed in space. Yet, given the immense value of space for supporting warfare as well as generating immense peacetime wealth, it is axiomatic that soon space will become an expanse of hostilities.
Led by the United States and Luxembourg, the realm of interplanetary space will also soon be legally opened to commercial entrepreneurs seeking to capitalize on the immense resources in space. Commercial entities are already developing technologies, building spacecraft, and defining methods to extract and utilize the boundless wealth of the solar system. While many posit the value of space resources on Earth, which could become available sooner than many expect, it is likely that the first use of extraterrestrial resources will be in space itself. Indeed, the orbital locations for geosynchronous satellites are viewed with such exceptional value that international treaties regulate their use, and frequencies associated with such telecommunications are auctioned off at enormous prices. As a general rule, the international community has complied with these obligations, but some countries are already proposing the sole ownership of specific locations, and the concept of a protected sphere or zone of influence where a commercial or governmental entity can prosecute activities exclusive of external interference is expected in the near future.
In space, where the development of infrastructure and capabilities is very expensive, the seminal question arises: who is going to protect these zones of influence from outside intervention? Commercial entrepreneurs will seek protection from rapacious individuals or countries seeking to take by force what others have labored to produce. Similar to the array of forts established in the frontier west to protect settlers and homesteaders, miners, and other entrepreneurs of the era from hostile forces, US commercial entities will require a force of good to protect people, property, and resources from predation. This protective envelope will likely fall on the shoulders of the United States in a fashion similar to the manner in which the US Navy protects lanes on the open seas. Freedom of the seas is an operative concept only so long as some entity protects those freedoms. The logical entity to expand its protective sphere is the US Air Force.
Yet, while the US Air Force has performed magnificently in all engagements, its equipment and airmen second to none, it stands depleted in both manpower and equipment. The US has been in a state of near constant hostilities since the early 1990s. Our aircraft have been flying combat air patrols, enforcing no-fly zones, and engaging the enemy in various areas of responsibility; we have been literally and figuratively flying the wings off our aircraft, combat and support alike. The Air Force similarly has groundbased ICBMs and strategic bombers whose nuclear weapons systems are in dire need of modernization. Our military space systems are also aging and in need of modernization. While the advent of commercial communications and imaging assets has enabled the military to procure bandwidth and images, there are still requirements for military imaging and telecommunications. Furthermore, if our Global Positioning System were to be compromised by in-space hostilities (this could include resident jamming in addition to hostile damage), many of our military capabilities would be severely degraded, if not rendered completely unusable.
The consequence of these system-wide modernization demands means that the Air Force’s overall budget will have no room for additional missions. Indeed, the entire Air Force structure, from equipment to personnel, is showing the result of many years of an unparalleled “ops tempo.” This was unsustainable for a short interval, and it now has gone on for years.
Moreover, to put it candidly, the entire military enterprise is hopelessly bureaucratized, and almost nothing can get done in a meaningful fashion. To establish yet another military service—a US Space Force—into this mix, under the same procurement rules, under the same total budget, and constrained under the same bureaucratic morass, will be at best a nightmare, and at worst a complete disaster.
Does this imply that we shouldn’t form a US Space Force? To the contrary, a Space Force will become the sine qua non of interplanetary stability and commerce just as the US Navy is on Earth. However, just as the Army spawned Air Force, the Air Force similarly needs to birth a new Space Force. However, we can’t do it under the same constraints that exist and will likely continue to exist in the future within the DOD procurement and budgetary establishment. This is not to state that a Space Force will be ex parte to the present DOD; it will be a US military force under the same command structure as other military services. So how would it be different? And what should a US Space Force do?
The mission of a new US Space Force would be to:
- Guarantee the safe passage of space vehicles of all nations and industries of peaceful intent;
- Ensure the safe prosecution of interplanetary commerce;
- Enforce zones of influence upon request;
- Provide global weather information, military communications and imagery support;
- Provide for global defense against medium and long-range ballistic missiles;
- Reduce or eliminate the threat of orbital debris;
- Ensure that no weapons of mass destruction are stationed in space;
- Provide deep space observation to detect extraterrestrial threats to Earth, such as impacting comets or asteroids;
- Provide a means of countering the threats posed by potentially impacting asteroids or comets;
- Develop highly-advanced propulsion, power, and communications technologies essential for a spacefaring civilization;
- Obtain royalties for commercial use of technologies developed by the Space Force; and
- Provide services for hire for transportation, inspection, protection, and communication.
That’s a tall order. How is this done without consuming a very large amount of the DOD budget that already has substantial hungry mouths to feed? Let’s dissect this mission requirement piecemeal.
First, all existing space assets and their existing support and procurement budget, whether under the control of the Air Force, Navy, or any other governmental institution other than NASA should be transferred to the US Space Force. Competent personnel should be transferred along to ensure a seamless transition.
Second, Title III of the Defense Procurement Act should be modified to include funding research and development and technology development in cooperation with commercial entities. Teams of commercial and US Space Force individuals would identify promising R&D and technology development projects. Commercial funding participation would be essential to some level; for purposes of conversation, 10–20 percent of overall costs. Consequently, the procurement would axiomatically be independent of the cumbersome military procurement system and be far less expensive. Indeed, numerous studies and real-world examples have shown that commercial development of space transportation capabilities are roughly a factor of eight less expensive than government systems. This would likely hold for in-space systems as well. The Title III loan would be repaid by the US Space Force, with royalties from the sale and use of the developed technologies, services provided, and in exchange for provided capabilities. Any excess funds would be used to develop capabilities within the US Space Force and not returned to the US Treasury.
Third, stop the wasteful end-of-fiscal-year spending spree by incentivizing prudence and an attitude of sound fiscal management. This could be as simple as allowing 10 percent of unused appropriated funds to be used by the Space Force on any project deemed worthy of funding but not in the Congressional budget. This would allow the Space Force to fund internal priorities not recognized by national leadership, but provide an incentive for budgetary parsimony.
Fourth, cooperate in large important ventures. For example, there is a growing desire for in-space propellant depots. These depots can be stationed at most any location, but initially most likely in low Earth orbit, although in the future the Earth-Moon L-1 Lagrange point and potentially lunar orbit appear to be viable. Recently, in cooperation with the Space Resources Roundtable, United Launch Alliance identified a price they would be willing to pay for propellants of unidentified constitution and quality at more than $3,000 per kilogram.
While this price is likely a bargain, and ULA would make a fortune at these rates, the context is set:
- Propellant from a space depot in LEO has value that could be far greater value than its terrestrial equivalent
- Quantities proposed are large: about 100,000 kilograms a year, although with missions to the Moon and Mars, this could grow to more than ten times that level. This business sector would grow rapidly as other commercial and national entities take advantage of the propellant
- The propellant depots in LEO would be emplaced at a substantial cost
- The LEO propellant depots and propellant represent assets of great value
- The power demand to generate propellants from water (for example) are prodigious
- The revenues from such propellant sales would be very high: about $300 million a year from the ULA proposal alone (and their proposed price is likely a factor of three too low)
Expanding the propellant depot offers an example for a very important joint use platform approach. An increasingly apparent need is that of global missile defense, and for boost-phase defense the best candidate to fulfill this is a Neutral Particle Beam (NPB) system. The NPB will be a large, valuable space asset. A propellant depot will also, of necessity, be a very large platform and also valuable. As a very large platform the NPB could form the backbone of a propellant depot as a Neutral Particle Beam anti-missile system.
- Require large amounts of power; the NPB system also requires high burst power (about 100 megawatts)
- Need maneuverability for collision and threat avoidance
- Both will be in reasonably low orbit, on the order of 1,000 kilometers
A 100-megawatt NPB system in full power missile defense mode will consume 11 kilograms a second of hydrogen and oxygen. Since propellant for liquid rocket engines run hydrogen rich, it is prudent to propose an oxygen-rich liquid hydrogen/liquid oxygen turbine since there’s considerable excess oxygen. However, other than occasional tests (and possibly interrogation of covertly-launched satellites to ensure they do not contain an EMP nuclear device), the NPB system will only infrequently operate at full power. One would expect no more than four to six such engagements per year to ensure mission ready status. Typical residence time on target would be about 10–20 seconds, resulting in the use of no more than 1,200 kilograms of propellant, yet for a full-up engagement including midcourse discrimination, the NPB system could consume 200,000 kilograms of fuel.
For the remainder of the time, it would need to retain some fraction of that maximum propellant. Supplies of water or potentially ammonia could be launched from Earth as secondary payloads, or from the Moon using tether-based systems with reusable reentry vehicles for aerodynamic braking to rendezvous with the propellant/NPB platform. The latter approach could, as an International Academy of Astronautics “cosmic study” appears to conclude, be competitive with Earth-supplied propellant feedstocks. Water from the Moon could likely be supplied for about $2,000 a kilogram when the appropriate infrastructure is in place. If there is ammonia at the lunar polar regions, it offers a hydrogen-rich resource that also contains another valuable commodity for crewed space missions: nitrogen. Each of these is a saleable product.
The NPB system provides large area defense against hostile threats, and can perform an important secondary function: orbital debris removal. Today, orbital debris represents an increasing hazard to space navigation, particularly in LEO. Operating the NPB at five-megawatt power levels in pulse mode (already demonstrated in the BEAR experiment) could vaporize smaller debris and deorbit larger debris pieces. Since the NPB would use some relatively common ion source, the cost in consumables would be minimal.
Power for this would be supplied by the same power plant that generates power to produce propellants; in space, power is a resource. The power system could generate power, which could be sold as a utility to produce propellants by the owner of the power system. The NPB-propellant depot system does not have to have systems supplied by a single vendor: many organizations can profit. Additionally, the NPB system would need a targeting system, and a prime system for this would be a high-performance, electronically and spatially agile, multi-frequency space-based radar capability. A 100–200 kilowatt SBR would enable a significant degree of coverage from the high ground. Ten NPB systems might dramatically reduce the need for AWACS and JSTARS systems saving the Air Force very large sums of funding for other priorities. Were this capability put into place, the Air Force could remit to the U.S. Space Force some reasonable fraction of the money saved by the operational Air Force. This entire project could readily be funded via the modified Title III program.
A NPB-propellant depot system is one example of how a US Space Force, operating under cooperative mutual assistance with commercial entities, could exist and could be largely self-funded. So, just as the concept of joint-use military-commercial airports is commonplace, the NPB-propellant depot could follow the same concept.
The NPB-propellant depot is but one of a range of useful examples. What else should the Space Force be engaged in? One very high priority is performing technology development on advanced space power and propulsion systems. These power systems could be leased to commercial entities wishing to mine asteroids and transport the product to users. The advanced power system could support advanced transportation systems using electric propulsion. The commercial entity could pay fee-for-service to the Space Force, or if the commodity being mined is needed by the Space Force, some form of barter system could be employed.
As space commerce expands, some form of regulatory framework for space commerce will be established as it is for international terrestrial equivalents today. Attempting to apply the entire terrestrial regulatory envelope is not practical because, unlike Earth, the volume of space is essentially infinite, and most of it is uninhabitable. However, some rules will likely be important, such as minimization of orbital debris; ensuring that activities on asteroids do not send an object careening on an impact trajectory towards Earth might be another. Some form of taxation for these services would be required since although the concept is that the regulations would be simple, straightforward and mutually agreeable, they would still require enforcement. Today, insurance companies are interested in having the ability to perform close-up inspections of failed geostationary orbit satellites to better determine the cause of failure. This is a service for which they’d be willing to pay.
Initially, commerce in space would be relatively uncomplicated, as terrestrial companies would want Earth-bound profits for their space activities, so determining a tax rate structure for these overarching cislunar services would be somewhat straightforward. However, as previously noted, most of the early products derived in space will be used in space, and some of these may be bartered, so there may be many approaches to ensuring a fair compensation for services is determined.
However, as more advanced forms of propulsion are developed, returning high-value objects and minerals from space to Earth would be an issue. This could take the form of a reverse Civil Reserve Air Fleet. It would work for two reasons: because the US Space Force would be a trusted agent, and because the Space Force would (unlike military ships and aircraft) be able to be built with extra mass and volume allocations. Here, also, the US Space Force would become essential to ensure that harmful weapons or substances do not enter the Earth’s biosphere uninspected, a form of extraterrestrial customs. Hence the Space Force would have an inward-looking mission, in the form of protection against ballistic missiles, returning payloads, and orbital debris; and an outward-looking mission, in terms of protection of space assets, exclusion zones, mineral claims, and space lanes of communication.
Eventually, just as the fort structure expanded westward, the Space Force’s sphere of influence would, of necessity, expand as well. The US Space Force should thus concentrate on always being at the leading edge of research in like propulsion, power and communications, including spending some portion of its budget on extremely advanced concepts.
Will the Air Force’s original version of the Manned Orbiting Laboratory become a reality for a similar, albeit vastly broader, charter? Will the systems in space be human or robotic? Clearly the concept of remote mining operations via telepresence, where the round-trip communications time is many minutes or hours, is unworkable. Is it likely, then, that systems will be primarily robotic, incorporation artificial intelligence, or there will be human outposts in areas where work is being accomplished? If different nations or companies are involved, some form of claims rights will need to be established, investigated, and adjudicated. The US Space Force could well be the organization for this.
The US has an opportunity to truly exploit the high ground of space by creating a revolutionary new military branch, the US Space Force. In order for this branch to be successful, it must have the flexibility to conduct business in a fundamentally out-of-the-box fashion when compared to how the DOD typically conducts business. The initial forays of the U.S. Space Force will likely start in LEO for Earth protection, debris removal, rights of passage, and supporting propellant depots. As the commercial and exploration sphere expands, the Space Force sphere of include will expand into cislunar space, followed by interplanetary space. The mission set will expand to meet the available envelope, which is considerable. This is a concept whose time has come. We should initiate this new military branch now.