Space Force has an operational weapon, and there's no going back

I've been following the work of military technologist Kelsey Atherton for years, and I've always enjoyed his insights into the most fascinating and horrifying aspects of the defense industry. In a recent article for Slate's Future Tense section, Atherton explored the theoretical future of Space Force, and how the Biden administration could potential handle the Trump administration's curious sci-fi vanity project. He then expounded upon the topic in his newsletter.

Initially, Atherton had written in Slate:

The Space Force is unique among military branches in that it has no (publicly acknowledged) weapons. Nevertheless, creating a new branch of the military for the explicit purpose of war in space suggests to other countries that the United States is planning for more in orbit than it is disclosing. Treating satellites like forts and orbits like territory risks war and, ultimately, the destruction of orbit as a useful space.

While the Pentagon has not adopted Trump's exact language on the Space Force, in May 2020 Secretary of Defense Mark Esper said Space Force was necessary because "our adversaries in the last several years have weaponized space. They've made it a warfighting domain."

But, as he acknowledged in his newsletter, this was a mistake—one that could potentially change the future of the Space Force:

 I, in my error, initially filed a story claiming Space Force has no publicly disclosed weapons. It in fact has one: the "Counter Communications System Block 10.2," a kind of jammer o̶n̶ ̶a̶ ̶s̶a̶t̶e̶l̶l̶i̶t̶e̶, that became operational March 9th, 2020. As weapons go, jammers sit above compromised computers and below blown-up objects, so while it doesn't have the same immediate threat of a space gun, it matters that the Space Force sees it as a weapon and wants to talk about it as such.

The jammer, or, as the Space Force describes it, "a transportable space electronic warfare system that reversibly denies adversary satellite communications" is a way to exert some hostile control over other objects in orbit, both civilian and military. That former part is big, but I'll get to that in a second. It's all but inevitable that, had this weapon's development cycle finished two years earlier, it would have gone to Air Force Space Command instead of the Space Force, and if the Space Force didn't exist, the weapon, and the people controlling it, would still be part of the military.

Satellites are owned by countries or companies, and the Space Force wants to have dominion over both. In the traffic cop version of the Space Force, it is less a military fighting wars and more a military that sees itself as enforcing the day-to-day law in orbit.

From there, Atherton explores the implications of Space Force's unique weapon possession as it relates to the Posse Comitatus Act, an 1878 law that was designed to restrict the armed forces from using their power to enforce local laws and domestic laws, unless explicitly allowed by Congress.

Essentially: the fact that Space Force already has its own proprietary weapon means that the US has already escalated intergalactic conflicts by inferring an expectation that the country will draw and enforce borders and local laws. Space Force doesn't even need to do anything with that jammer device; its mere existence is an act of aggressive defense that means a course is set for extending terrestrial conflicts into space, and there's no turning back from that. Put another way: "governance abhors a vacuum."

Governance Abhors a Vacuum [Kelsey Atherton / Wars of Future Past]

What Biden Should Do With the Space Force [Kelsey Atherton / Slate]

What Biden Should Do With the Space Force (Archive) [Kelsey Atherton / Slate]

Image: Public Domain via Staff Sgt. James Richardson