WASHINGTON: The United States met a mounting 21st century strategic challenge from Russia and China on Friday with the creation of a full-fledged US Space Force within the Department of Defence.

Acting on an ambition by President Donald Trump that had met resistance at first, the White House signalled its determination to not cede superiority in a Star Wars-like future of killer satellites and satellite-killer weapons.

Trump made the Space Force’s creation real with the signing of the 2020 National Defence Authorisation Act, which set the initial budget for a Pentagon force that would stand equally with the military’s five other branches.

“Going to be a lot of things happening in space, because space is the world’s newest war-fighting dom­ain,” Trump told members of the military gathered for the signing.

The Space Force will be the sixth formal force of the US military, after the Army, Air Force, Navy Marines, and Coast Guard.

“Our reliance on space-based capabilities has grown dramatically, and today outer space has evolved into a war-fighting domain of its own,” said Secretary of Defence Mark Esper.

“Maintaining American dominance in that domain is now the mission of the United States Space Force.”

Esper compared the Space Force’s creation to the landmark creation of a separate US Air Force in 1947, hived off from the army after World War II in recognition that aerial war fighting was indeed a separate domain that would be important in the future.

Now that recognition is extended to space — a crucial venue for both military spy and communications satellites which will be targeted by adversaries in any conflict — the possibility of outer-space launch platforms for destructive weapons is becoming a reality.

The Defence Intelligence Agency warned in a report early this year that China and Russia have both developed “robust and capable” space services for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance.

“China and Russia, in particular, are developing a variety of means to exploit perceived US reliance on space-based systems and challenge the US position in space,” it said.

China already demonstrated it could shoot down a satellite with a ground-based missile in 2007.

“Both states are developing jamming and cyberspace capabilities, directed energy weapons, on-orbit capabilities, and ground-based anti-satellite missiles that can achieve a range of reversible to non-reversible effects,” it said.

Iran and North Korea, too, are increasingly able to extend their military activities into space, jamming the communications of adversaries and developing ballistic missile technologies, it noted.

Published in Dawn, December 22nd, 2019