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Our Next World War Might Be Fought in Outer Space

To counter threats from China and Russia, the U.S. military is scrambling to weaponize space on a scale not seen since Ronald Reagan.

Illustration by Dan Bejar

There’s plenty to criticize about Donald Trump’s plans to massively expand the U.S. military. His requested $54 billion increase in defense spending, combined with his bellicose rhetoric, seems tailor-made to lead America into more violent conflicts. And aside from Trump’s obsession with owning “the best” of everything, it’s not clear that the United States needs to boost military spending by 10 percent—particularly when Trump campaigned on a pledge to avoid foreign entanglements.

Yet there’s one area of national security where America might benefit from more spending: outer space. In recent years, China has demonstrated its ability to shoot down satellites that the United States relies on for everything from processing credit card transactions and balancing the power grid to collecting intelligence and directing troops on the battlefield. The opening salvo came in 2007, when China launched a missile that destroyed one of its own satellites—a clear demonstration of military and technological prowess. Six years later, the Chinese tested an anti-satellite weapon system that reached a more distant orbit 20,000 miles above the Earth—right where America parks its GPS and national security satellites. The test served as a wake-up call for the Defense Department, which suddenly realized that its national security apparatus was no longer secure.

Such attacks could have a devastating impact. If another country were to take out U.S. satellites, our military would essentially be flying blind. “We are entirely dependent on satellites,” says retired General Jim Armor, former head of the Pentagon’s National Security Space Office, the agency responsible for coordinating the military’s space operations. If an enemy were to attack America’s satellites, “it would put us back into the Industrial Age.”

China is not the only country that poses a threat. Russia has launched satellites that intentionally bumped into their own rocket stages—demonstrating that seemingly benign pieces of scientific equipment can be turned into weapons, sent to crash into enemy targets. North Korea, meanwhile, has developed technology to jam GPS signals. Sophisticated ground-based lasers can now blind satellite cameras and fry electronics, while malicious viruses can wreak havoc on satellite systems.

To counter such threats, the U.S. military is scrambling to weaponize space on a scale not seen since Ronald Reagan’s ill-conceived missile defense system. Last fall, Trump advisers Peter Navarro and Robert Walker resurrected Reagan’s pledge of “peace through strength,” promising that their boss would “significantly expand” the military’s space budget. “We must reduce our current vulnerabilities,” they wrote in Space News, “and assure that our military commands have the space tools they need for their missions.” When Trump sat down for his first meeting with the Joint Chiefs on January 27, “we talked about space more than any other topic,” says General David Goldfein, the head of the Air Force. That same month, Trump announced he would place particular emphasis on missile defense, and he has held extensive consultations with the Missile Defense Advocacy Alliance, a lobbying group that promotes anti-missile systems.

The Trump administration also plans to revive the National Space Council, which used to help private industry develop military projects. The government is currently working with defense contractors Raytheon and Lockheed Martin, for example, to develop a new fleet of GPS and military satellites that are less vulnerable to hacking—a project that will take another decade to complete. Bringing back the council “indicates that they want to improve coordination across the military” with NASA and the private sector, says Todd Harrison, director of the Aerospace Security Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “That was the job of the National Space Council when it used to exist decades ago.”

Since China demonstrated its ability to target America’s national security satellites, the Pentagon has also worked to better coordinate space programs across the Defense Department. President Obama shifted $5 billion toward space defense, and agencies have begun participating in war-game scenarios involving space combat at the recently activated Joint Interagency Combined Space Operations Center. The Air Force has also created a new Space Mission Force, reorganizing crews in an effort to keep military satellites safe from potential adversaries.

Some Republicans, however, feel that such efforts don’t go far enough. At the annual Space Symposium in April, Representative Mike Rogers proposed creating a new branch of the military called “Space Corps,” which would be devoted solely to space defense. “My vision for the future is a separate space force within the Department of Defense,” Rogers said, noting that the Air Force was originally created by splitting it off from the Army. “Simply put, space must be a priority.”

While it’s not clear yet exactly how much of Trump’s military budget will go toward space defense systems, it’s a direction that enjoys strong bipartisan support. Back in 1983, when Reagan first proposed a missile defense system, the idea of using lasers, microwaves, and particle beams to shoot down incoming missiles sounded like something straight out of science fiction. But the “Star Wars” initiative, however wasteful and misguided it proved to be, fit squarely within the government’s militarized view of outer space. America was forced into the stars, after all, by the fear of Sputnik, and the space program has always retained a military edge. The more we rely on satellites to operate the most basic functions of our economy and infrastructure, the more space will become a potential battleground. “The problems are not hypothetical and in the future,” says Harrison, director of the Aerospace Security Project. “They are happening now.”