President Trump’s Calls for a “Space Force” Likely to Trigger an Arms Race with Russia

BY SEAN CROWLEY

Last week, President Donald J. Trump called for the creation of a sixth branch of the United States Armed Forces – the Space Force. As of now, it is unknown what responsibilities the proposed service will undertake, and its budget will likely be delayed until 2020. [1] Nevertheless, the language used by the president in his speech justifying the creation of such a force prompted America’s geopolitical adversaries to issue statements of concern in response.

President Trump cited exo-atmospheric military competition with the Russian Federation and the People’s Republic of China as reasoning for standing up the Space Force. [2] One familiar with Russia’s foreign policy vision can understand why being labeled as a competitor by the U.S. would unnerve the Kremlin hierarchy. Russian foreign policy operates based on derzhavnost’ – being a great power and being recognized as one by other states. [3] The key objective of Russian diplomacy with the U.S. is to achieve a sort of grand bargain in which Moscow is given a free hand by Washington to execute a Monroe Doctrine-style policy in its near abroad. [4] In exchange, Russia promises to partner with the U.S. on issues such as counterterrorism, counter-proliferation, retarding climate change, and space exploration. (Both American astronauts and Russian kosmonavty operate onboard the International Space Station (ISS) and rely on the Baykonur Cosmodrome, a space facility in Kazakhstan leased to Russia, to get there.) [5] In the Kremlin’s view, if the U.S. views Russia as a competitor rather than a partner, this decreases the odds of achieving the grand bargain it desires.

As such, the response of Russian officials to President Trump’s announcement was predictable. Mariya Zakharova, the spokeswoman for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (Ministerstvo inostrannykh del; MID), warned of a potential arms race in space as did Viktor Bondarev, head of the Federation Council’s (the upper house of the Duma, Russia’s parliament) Committee on Defense and Security, who said, “If the United States withdraws from the 1967 treaty banning nuclear weapons in outer space, then, of course, not only ours, but also other states, will follow with a tough response aimed at ensuring world security.” [6] Bondarev, one should note, is a retired colonel-general and former commander of the Russian Aerospace Forces (Vozdushno-Kosmicheskiye Sily; VKS), which includes the Russian Air Force (Voyenno-Vozdushnye Sily; VVS), Aerospace Defense Forces Branch (Voyska vozdushno-kosmicheskoy oborony; VVKO), and the Russian Space Forces (Kosmicheskie Voyska Rossii; KVR). [7]

In his response, Bondarev mentioned the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, which outlaws the deployment of weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in space but not conventional arms. [8] Both the U.S. and the European Union have refused to sign on to a Russian proposal at the United Nations (of which China also approves) that would fully ban space-based weapons. Their reasoning being that anti-satellite (ASAT) weapons, which Russia reportedly tested this year, do not fall under the ban. [9] Russia has also admitted to developing systems that can track or blind satellites. [10]

Such projects raise questions about the KVR, which Zakharova claimed in her comments is a purely defensive force. [11] Indeed, troops under its command mostly operate radars and early-warning satellites. [12] However, one can draw a correlation between the advancements in U.S. military space technology and the development of the KVR. During the Cold War, Soviet military space operations were the domain of the Strategic Rocket Forces (Raketnyye Voyska Strategicheskogo Naznacheniya; RVSN), which also oversaw the U.S.S.R.’s intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) stockpiles. [13] In 1992, following the U.S.S.R.’s dissolution, the newly-established Russian Federation stood up the KVR as a separate branch. However, by 1997, it was once again part of the RVSN. After a divorce from the RVSN in 2001, the KVR became part of the VVKO in 2011, and in 2015 both became separate subbranches of the VKS. [14] The reasoning behind such reorganization was Russia’s observance of the structure of the U.S. space forces (which operate as part of the Air Force) and developments in U.S. military space technology. Such equipment was vital in Operations DESERT STORM, ALLIED FORCE, ENDURING FREEDOM, and IRAQI FREEDOM. [15] Russia did not want to fall behind, and its development of ASAT systems was likely in response to this.

Russia’s warnings of an arms race in space echo the U.S.’s withdrawal from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty in 2002. The treaty only allowed the deployment of ABMs on the home territory of a country. In the years after its withdrawal, the U.S. deployed missile defense installations on land and sea around Russia under the cover of NATO. [16] Russia, in response, developed a series of nuclear weapons designed to counter these missile defense systems. President Vladimir Putin formally announced their existence at a press conference in March of this year. He admitted in a subsequent interview that the U.S.’s withdrawal from the ABM Treaty was the motivation behind the development of these weapons. [17] Ironically, Russia’s development of a hypersonic glide missile – which can fly into the upper atmosphere to avoid missile defenses –  in response to America’s withdrawal from the ABM Treaty is now being used as justification for the standing up of the Space Force. [18]

Given past trends, now that the U.S. considers space defense important enough to separate from its Air Force, Russia may stand up KVR as an independent branch again. However, Russian officials have made no public statements indicating as such, and the subordination of the KVR under the VKS is relatively recent. Again, it is unknown what sort of missions President Trump’s proposed Space Force will undertake, but if the U.S. decides to place conventional arms (or even WMD) in space, Russia, striving to achieve strategic parity with the U.S., will likely respond in kind as it did when Washington pulled out of the ABM Treaty.

References 

[1] Euan McKirdy, “How Does Trump’s Space Force Compare to Russia and China’s Space Capabilities,” CNN, 20 June 2018, https://www.cnn.com/2018/06/19/politics/us-china-russia-space-force-intl/index.html; Cristina Maza, “A New Space Race? Russia Responds to Donald Trump’s Military Space Force Proposal,” Newsweek, 20 June 2018, http://www.newsweek.com/will-russia-and-us-go-war-space-moscow-vows-respond-donald-trumps-militarized-985872.

[2] Kyle Rempfer, “Russia Warns of a ‘Tough Response’ to Creation of U.S. Space Force,” The Air Force Times, 21 June 2018, https://www.airforcetimes.com/flashpoints/2018/06/21/russia-warns-of-a-tough-response-to-creation-of-us-space-force/.

[3] Seva Gunitsky, “One Word to Improve U.S. Russia Policy,” The New Republic, 27 April 2018, https://newrepublic.com/article/148140/one-word-fix-us-russia-policy.

[4] Ibid.

[5] “Russia Warns Against Trump’s ‘Alarming’ Plans for U.S. Space Domination,” Military.com, 20 June 2018, https://www.military.com/daily-news/2018/06/20/russia-warns-against-trumps-alarming-plans-us-space-domination.html.

[6] Kyle Rempfer, “Russia Warns of a ‘Tough Response’ to Creation of U.S. Space Force,” The Air Force Times, 21 June 2018, https://www.airforcetimes.com/flashpoints/2018/06/21/russia-warns-of-a-tough-response-to-creation-of-us-space-force/.

[7] “Russia Warns of ‘Tough Response’ to New U.S. Military Space Force,” The Moscow Times, https://themoscowtimes.com/news/russia-warns-of-tough-response-to-new-us-military-space-force-61928.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Matthew Bodner, “As Trump Pushes for Separate Space Force, Russia Moves Fast the Other Way,” Defense News, 21 June 2018, https://www.defensenews.com/global/europe/2018/06/21/as-trump-pushes-for-separate-space-force-russia-moves-fast-the-other-way/.

[10] Euan McKirdy, “How Does Trump’s Space Force Compare to Russia and China’s Space Capabilities,” CNN, 20 June 2018, https://www.cnn.com/2018/06/19/politics/us-china-russia-space-force-intl/index.html.

[11] Kyle Rempfer, “Russia Warns of a ‘Tough Response’ to Creation of U.S. Space Force,” The Air Force Times, 21 June 2018, https://www.airforcetimes.com/flashpoints/2018/06/21/russia-warns-of-a-tough-response-to-creation-of-us-space-force/.

[12]Pavel Podvig, “History and Current Status of the Russian Early Warning System,” Science and Global Security, Vol. 10, page(s): 21-60, 2002, http://cisac.fsi.stanford.edu/publications/history_and_the_current_status_of_the_russian_earlywarning_system.

[13] Matthew Bodner, “As Trump Pushes for Separate Space Force, Russia Moves Fast the Other Way,” Defense News, 21 June 2018, https://www.defensenews.com/global/europe/2018/06/21/as-trump-pushes-for-separate-space-force-russia-moves-fast-the-other-way/.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Stephen F. Cohen, “How Washington Provoked and Perhaps Lost a New Nuclear Arms Race,” The Nation,7 March 2018, https://www.thenation.com/article/how-washington-provoked-and-perhaps-lost-a-new-nuclear-arms-race/.

[17] Spencer Ackerman, “How John Bolton Helped Kickstart the New Nuclear Arms Race,” The Daily Beast, 31 March 2018, https://www.thedailybeast.com/how-john-bolton-helped-kickstart-the-new-nuclear-arms-race?source=twitter&via=mobile.

[18] Kyle Rempfer, “Russia Warns of a ‘Tough Response’ to Creation of U.S. Space Force,” The Air Force Times, 21 June 2018, https://www.airforcetimes.com/flashpoints/2018/06/21/russia-warns-of-a-tough-response-to-creation-of-us-space-force/.

Image source: www.cnn.com

About the Author

Sean Crowley is a Junior Fellow at the ERA Institute. 


This article is produced by the Eurasian Research and Analysis Institute, Inc. (ERA Institute), a public, 501(c)(3) nonprofit institution devoted to studying Eurasian affairs. All views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).