French President Emmanuel Macron fueled the already meme stoked the fire by announcing his approval to create a space force as a branch of the country’s air force. He claimed its creation was a “true national security issue,” and that the force would be better able to protect their satellites “in an active manner.”
Since Donald Trump’s announcement in June of 2018 of his direction to create a space force as a sixth branch of the Us military, the idea has mostly circled as a joke around the internet, but with Macron’s announcement, and Trump signing a directive in February, the world may be that much closer to seeing the first galactic militaries. The question that then needs to be asked is if countries do need a space force and if they would actually be protecting domestic assets orbiting the planet.
Today, no satellites have been attacked in an act of war, but anti-satellite technology had been developed and tested in the past and also more recently. The United States and the Soviet Union had performed anti-satellite missile tests by the 1980s violating the 1967 UN Treaty that laid down principles of space exploration and placement of satellites.
China tested one such weapon in 2007, making them the third nation to do so, which brought intense criticism. The country took days to release a statement on the launch and many speculated that while the reasons were militarily based (as the US militaries major weakness is a dependence on satellite technology), there could have also been diplomatic reasons.
China and Russia have long felt uncomfortable with the US’s dominance over space and had proposed a space weapons treaty in 2002 that went nowhere. A month after destroying their own satellite, China again proposed a treaty to enact a “weapons-free zone” outside the atmosphere. What followed was another test by the US a year later, at least five more from Russia, and one from India in March of this year, but no weapons agreement.
This is what has necessitated the more recent interest and announcements of space-based military branches, but how exactly these will be set up has yet to be made clear and there would need to be either renegotiation or plain breaking of UN treaties for any weapon to be put in space. Currently, UN members have agreed to place no weapons of mass destruction in orbit or on any celestial bodies, and that space exploration shall only be used for peaceful purposes. This has limited satellites to be used only in communications, global positioning, and surveillance purposes.
The destruction of satellites would have massive consequences, for nearly every industry and person is dependent on them in some way. Commercial airlines and boats would be unable to communicate with their bases, and eventually, all functions requiring internet and GPS would fail. If all satellite systems failed at once, the globe would be without vital weather data necessary for food production and safe travel, and rescue missions would be immensely difficult without satellite images and a sudden reliance on analogue communications.
While the previous scenario is the worst possible case, even the destruction of one satellite could affect the others due to debris. China’s missile launch received much more press than India’s because it was much higher in the atmosphere, so the remains could take decades to leave orbit. Even a half-inch piece of debris going at orbital speeds (around 17,000 miles per hour) could place a 4-inch dent in 7-inch thick aluminium which is much thicker than the outsides of any spacecraft.
One satellite being destroyed could set off a domino effect known as The Kessler Syndrome, where so much debris would be created that low earth orbit becomes impossible. Even a little cloud of debris can cause certain orbital paths to becoming unusable and increases the risk of future collisions and breaks.
With all of this in mind, it would seem the function of the space force wouldn’t contain more duties than satellite monitoring and maintaining anti-satellite weapons as a deterrent. Senior Research Fellow at the Foundation pour la Recherche Stratégique Xavier Pasco confirmed this stating “We are not in a Star Wars movie, there is no point for the military to be in space,” however these new branches could also pilot crafts such as the Stratolaunch aeroplane that can fly in the atmosphere and launch satellites.
Whatever the functions of space force become, the rising desire of every nation to have one is a bit concerning. Comparisons to the Cold War’s nuclear arms race have been thrown around except this time it will be every industrial nation trying to deter each other from attacking. So, does France need a space force?
Unfortunately, any advancement in weaponry typically creates a demand for other nations to reciprocate creating a necessity despite there being no threat. Unlike the atomic bomb which was used by the US on Japan, no nation has used anti-satellite missiles to attack. Space forces are a response to fears that something that might be a threat, and this new precedent is scary.
If a nation can create and test new, more destructive technologies because of a potential threat, what other measures might they take for other possible ones? To me, it’s clear that security of galactic assets is not the primary concern, but that the space force is another excuse to expand war power and authoritative potential.