A view of Earth, April 1, 2015. Credit: Terry Virts | NASA

Space has been a hotly contested domain for decades. I can personally attest to this: While I was commander of the International Space Station in 2015, we had to maneuver our spaceship to avoid debris left over from a 2007 Chinese anti-satellite-missile demonstration.

The threat, however, will get only worse. The United States must proactively ensure its ability to operate and defend itself in space — which is why Congress needs to act to finalize the U.S. Space Force as a sixth, independent branch of our armed forces.

It’s hard to overstate the importance of space in our military operations and civilian life. Although the United States is the world’s leader in space, China and Russia have made it clear that they are not willing to accept that as status quo. They already have access to weapons that threaten our assets in space, either by destroying them in orbit or by crippling ground control through cyberattacks or radio jamming.

Since the Trump administration’s recent announcement of plans to create a Space Force, there has been a fair amount of criticism stemming from a lack of understanding about what such a force would be. It wouldn’t, of course, be a collection of “Star Wars” troops fighting battles in outer space. We cannot even call it a “militarization of space” — which already occurred in the 1950s when the Soviet army launched Sputnik and the U.S. Navy launched Vanguard.

But the Space Force could address serious shortcomings in how effectively our military is organized. As the administration laid out this month, the first steps toward creating a Space Force would include creating a subunified Space Command, a Space Operations Force that would initially recruit from the ranks of current military members and a Space Development Agency tasked with procuring space hardware.

Although these steps can be taken without major congressional legislation, the final and most important step in creating the Space Force would require legislators to rewrite Title 10 of the U.S. Code, which outlines the role of armed forces. The last major rewrite was undertaken when the Air Force was created after World War II.

Why should Congress make the Space Force a reality? Because space is important and unique enough to deserve its own place at the Defense Department table, ensuring rightful allocation of budget resources and power.

Our military uses a principle known as “multidomain warfare,” meaning that when tasked with combat, different services all work jointly across the five domains: air, sea, land, space and cyber. However, in peacetime, the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps and Coast Guard “organize, train and equip” only by their specific domain.

Space as a domain is now mature enough to stand alone. Today there are officers who “grew up” in Air Force Space Command, beginning as second lieutenants and making their way through the ranks to four-star generals. It defies logic to keep that domain in the Air Force – akin to having the infantry in the Navy. Air and space are unrelated domains, and the equipment, techniques and culture required to operate airplanes are entirely different from those required to launch and operate in space.

Although creating a Space Force makes sense from a theoretical point of view, there are legitimate practical concerns. The president wants a Space Force by 2020, a very ambitious timeline. However, the tight deadline serves to light a fire under the sprawling Pentagon bureaucracy, helping to prevent this initiative from floundering over a longer period. There would also be significant initial costs to standing up a new Space Force. In the long run, however, it would become more efficient as duplication across services was reduced.

The devil is in the details. What exactly would the Space Force entail? I recommend that such a branch consolidate missions that launch and control satellites in orbit; that develop and procure space-related equipment; and that maintain our land-based nuclear missiles as well as our land-based missile-defense system (for example, to protect us from North Korean missiles). I would also consolidate cyber forces into the Space Force. Although cyber is its own domain, it is not yet mature enough to warrant a separate Cyber Force. This would also be a sound decision from both an organizational efficiency and a cultural point of view.

The 21st century will present continuous challenges to the United States, and we must realize there is no “manifest destiny” guaranteeing our status as world leader. Now is the time to show leadership and vision by properly realigning our military with the reality that space is an essential and unique domain of modern warfare.

Terry Virts, a retired U.S. Air Force colonel, served as commander of the International Space Station.

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