MOSCOW — Since the USSR launched Sputnik in 1957, space has always been seen as a domain for potential conflict. The technology required to reach orbit has inherent military applications, and the importance of space-based military assets — communications and intelligence satellites — has only grown over the past 60 years.

But few have been as explicit about the military aspects of space technology as U.S. President Donald Trump. Announcing an executive order on June 19 to create a sixth branch of the U.S. military, known as the Space Force, Trump said a new service was needed to ensure American dominance on the high frontier — apparently undercutting his defense secretary, James Mattis.

“We don’t want China and Russia and other countries leading us,” Trump said.

An effigy of the dog Laika, the first living creature in space, inside a replica of the satellite Sputnik II at the Central House of Aviation and Cosmonautics in Moscow. (Mladen Antonov/AFP via Getty Images)
An effigy of the dog Laika, the first living creature in space, inside a replica of the satellite Sputnik II at the Central House of Aviation and Cosmonautics in Moscow. (Mladen Antonov/AFP via Getty Images)

This justification is particularly vexing when taking into account what these potential American adversaries are actually doing in space, especially Russia. Trump is moving to separate space activities from the Air Force, but in 2015 Russia actually merged its space force with the air force in an attempt to consolidate command authority and replicate the traditional U.S. approach.

The Russian Aerospace Forces, as the branch is now known, is in many ways a three-branch service combining elements of the space forces, air forces, as well as air and missile defense forces under a single command. Beyond following the American example, Russia’s justification was that space is increasingly integrated, rather than separated, from everything else.

Announcing the merger in 2015, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said the merger “makes it possible [...] to concentrate in a single command all responsibility for formulating military and technical policy for the development of troops dealing with tasks in the aerospace theater and [...] to raise the efficiency of their use through closer integration.”

If Trump has his way, the United States and Russia will have switched their historic outlooks on space as a domain of war. And the United States may be moving backward.

“The reason for Russia’s integration, is that the ISR capabilities required for air defense, missile defense, and anti satellite missions are closely related and multirole,” says Michael Kofman, an expert on the Russian military at the Virginia-based CNA think tank. “Their mission definitions and the boundary between them is entirely contrived and artificial.”

The fourth domain

The problem that space has presented military thinkers since the ‘50s is where to draw the line between air and space activities. In broad strokes, the United States very quickly ruled everything above ground is the domain of the air force, while the Soviet Union drew a line and distinguished between air and space as zones of operation and divvied responsibilities as such.

Back then, military space assets were quite limited and authority over activities in space were given to the Strategic Rocket Forces — the branch of the Soviet and now Russian military with command authority over nuclear ballistic missiles. The left the branch responsible for space launches and whatever military hardware was placed into orbit.

This state of affairs began to change in the 1980s, when command over Soviet space assets were subordinated directly under the Ministry of Defense in light of their expanding role. In 1992, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the new Russia created a special branch, the Space Forces, to oversee space launch, space defenses, long-range radars, and so on.

Mostly due to bureaucratic agendas driven by a variety of defense ministers over the next 20 years, the space forces moved in and out of the Strategic Rocket Forces again. Much of the thinking was driven by observation of American offensive strategies seen in Yugoslavia, Iraq and Afghanistan — unified attacks from the air involving heavy use of space assets.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, foreground left, looks at exhibits as he visits the Cosmonautics Memorial Museum in Moscow, Russia, on April 11, 2014. (Alexei Nikolsky/Sputnik via AP)
Russian President Vladimir Putin, foreground left, looks at exhibits as he visits the Cosmonautics Memorial Museum in Moscow, Russia, on April 11, 2014. (Alexei Nikolsky/Sputnik via AP)

“In the 2000s, it became clear that missile defense and air defense were becoming closer, that long-range radars are adept not only at tracking missiles, but also for control of airspace and tracking satellites in orbit,” says Pavel Luzin, an independent Russian space and defense analyst. “So in 2011, Russia’s space forces were merged with the air defense forces.”

But there was much overlap between the newly christened Aerospace Defense Forces and the Air Force, leading to their consolidation into the Aerospace Forces (VKS) in 2015.

Crossroads

Russia’s gradual integration of space forces with the air force represents something of an evolution in thinking over time — though bureaucratic factors should not be overlooked — concerning where air and space meet and how to operate in and between them. Where there was once a gap, Russia now sees a unified theater.

Much of this has to do with evolving aerospace technologies, and their uses. Whereas there was once a line dividing the air and space theaters, about 40km and 100km according to Maxim Shepovalenko, an analyst at the Moscow-based Center for the Analysis of Strategies and Technologies, there is now a unified aerospace theater.

Moreover, the aerospace domain is now a strategic one. “Fighting in the integrated aerospace domain with strategic goals in mind, both offensively and defensively, requires unity of effort and command,” Shepovalenko says before quoting Giulio Douhet, a noted air power theorist, on adapting to the changing nature of war.

Russia clearly sees itself as the disadvantaged force in aerospace, especially when it comes to military space applications. For years now, they have attempted to coax the United States to sign on to a Russian proposal to the U.N. calling for an international pledge to refrain from first placement of weapons in outer space. The U.S. and EU have refrained from signing on.

The U.S. objections are reasonable enough: Russia’s proposal, backed by China, does not adequately define space weapons and overlooks an entire class of weapons being developed by those two countries: ground-launched anti-satellite weapons. Russia reportedly ran a test of a direct-ascent ASAT missile earlier this year.

U.S. hesitance to sign onto Russia’s proposal has been used by Russian media and officials to accuse Washington of attempting to gain an upper-hand in a coming cosmic arms race. Trump’s proposal to create a U.S. space force struck similar chords in Moscow, with the Russian Foreign Ministry spokesperson, Maria Zakharova, railing against it on June 20th.

“The most alarming thing about this news is the aim of his instructions, namely to ensure domination in space,” Zakharova said. Repeating previous accusations, she claimed the proposal masked “plans to bring weapons into space with the aim of possibly staging military action there.”

As is customary for Russian officials, she said such plans would have a “destabilizing effect on strategic stability and international security.”