WASHINGTON — There’s a battle brewing in Earth’s orbit, and U.S. Rep. Doug Lamborn doesn’t think the U.S. is ready for it.
But with the Pentagon and President Donald Trump both interested in new space ventures, the Colorado Springs Republican does see an opportunity — especially for his home state’s economy.
Those are reasons why Lamborn is ignoring the “Star Wars” jokes and driving ahead with legislation that would force the Pentagon to better prepare for a shootout in space.
“I don’t care what we call it or what it looks like, as long as we make space the priority in the Department of Defense it deserves to be,” Lamborn said.
Last year, Lamborn caused a minor stir when he tried to get Congress to create a new arm of the military known as the Space Corps — an idea opposed by Air Force leaders and one that ultimately was shelved in favor of a study.
This year, Lamborn is using a different approach.
He’s proposing a new training regimen for the Air Force that would “further develop and normalize space as a true war-fighting domain” — with activities such as mission simulations for satellite operations, according to his office.
That plan took a significant step forward last week when the House Armed Services Committee incorporated Lamborn’s suggestion into its annual military blueprint, known as the National Defense Authorization Act, or NDAA.
“Our national defense demands it,” said Lamborn of efforts to further militarize space.
To become law, the NDAA and Lamborn’s provision must pass the full House, survive negotiations with the Senate and garner Trump’s signature. Even then, its implementation is somewhat open-ended, as Lamborn said the details of the training plan are “still in the formative stages.”
But the six-term incumbent almost certainly has an ally in the White House — and not just for his training idea.
Trump said in March that he was intrigued by the notion of creating a separate military branch for space.
“My new national strategy for space recognizes that space is a war-fighting domain, just like the land, air and sea,” he said in a speech at Marine Corps Air Station Miramar in California. “We may even have a Space Force … We have the Air Force; we’ll have the Space Force.”
Taken together, the prospects have lawmakers and defense experts talking about the start of a new chapter in space militarization — a possibility that has worried activists who want to stop humanity’s conflicts from further expanding into the final frontier.
Not that the saber-rattling is new.
In 1959, two years after the Soviet Union shocked the world with the launch of the Sputnik 1 satellite, the U.S. tested its first anti-satellite missile.
That helped fuel a decades-long rivalry between the two countries that included President Ronald Reagan’s push in the 1980s to create a missile-defense system, nicknamed Star Wars, that would have incorporated space-based interceptors and other in-orbit assets.
After the Cold War ended, interest in military space spiked again after the first Gulf War, said Todd Harrison — a space expert with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington-based think tank.
The U.S. use of in-orbit assets such as GPS satellites during the early-1990s conflict “showed you that space can give you a big advantage” on the battlefield, Harrison said.
So much so that space since has become a crutch for U.S. forces.
“Our way of fighting has become increasingly dependent on the satellites we have in space,” he said. “Space in many ways is our Achilles’ heel, and that’s why our adversaries are targeting it.”
It’s for that reason that China’s successful test of an anti-satellite weapon in 2007 was a “wake-up call” for the Pentagon, Harrison said.
In spite of that, he added, the U.S. still is trying to develop a robust counter-strategy.
“Our response has been a bunch of hand-wringing and worrying,” he said.
Into that arena stepped Lamborn, whose district includes Peterson Air Force Base; the headquarters of Air Force Space Command.
Space “training and war-fighting training in particular just need to become more of a priority,” Lamborn said. “We have to prepare for a potential conflict so (an attack) would not catch us off guard.”
Lamborn said he didn’t have a cost estimate for his training provision, though it comes amid an overall push to increase military spending on space.
Mike Tierney, an expert on space budgets, said the Pentagon wants to spend somewhere between $7.5 billion and $12.5 billion next year on space operations and research — a range that doesn’t include its requests for classified operations.
He said cost specifics are hard to pin down because the money is spread across a number of programs, but Tierney noted that there’s been growing interest in a few key indicators, such as improving the military’s ability to track what’s happening in space.
“It’s very much a … boom era,” said Tierney, a consultant with Velos, an engineering and government relations firm.
That aspect is a big part of what’s driving Lamborn, too; he said half his motivation is herding jobs and money to his home state.
“Colorado deserves to have space as one of its key industries,” Lamborn said. “We have the capability of becoming the epicenter of space for the nation.”
There’s already a big footprint.
Many of the biggest space companies have operations in the state. One of them, United Launch Alliance — a joint venture between Boeing and Lockheed Martin — is headquartered in Colorado. And every year the state plays host to the popular and long-running Space Symposium, a major industry powwow.
“I want to see us take advantage of the potential for economic and business development, along with the national security benefits,” he said.
But some analysts and activists see a danger in the increased militarization of space.
The Secure World Foundation, which promotes the use of space for peaceful purposes, published a report last month that detailed much of what’s known publicly about global military space capabilities in the hope that increased transparency would “help dial back the tension,” said Victoria Samson, the group’s Washington office director.
The findings run the gamut, from missiles to cyberattacks to lasers.
A major worry of theirs is a repeat of a 2007 Chinese anti-satellite missile test, which created thousands of pieces of debris. The shrapnel from that strike is expected to remain in orbit for decades — a significant risk to future operations because even small piece of debris can wreck other spacecraft that are quickly circling the planet.
“Our global society and economy is increasingly dependent on space capabilities, and a future conflict in space could have massive, long-term negative repercussions that are felt here on Earth,” wrote the Secure World Foundation analysts.
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