What Does the U.S. Space Force Actually Do? | Space

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Space Force leaders readily describe their guardians as working toward a state of combat readiness, even as they hope an era of actual conflict never arrives. In October, I went to the Pentagon to meet with Gen. Chance Saltzman, the chief of space operations and the Space Force’s highest-ranking officer. Saltzman remarked that several decades back, when he began working with satellites in the Air Force, the notion that there could be combat losses in space was not part of the conversation. But “those are discussions now,” he told me, “because both the Chinese and the Russians have demonstrated operational capabilities that truly placed those assets at risk.” In 2007, China’s decision to test an ASAT weapon to destroy one of its own satellites sent shock waves through the U.S. military and created a vast field of debris. A similar Russian tactic, in 2021, generated more than 1,500 fragments and led Secretary of State Antony Blinken to describe the act as “recklessly conducted.” The Space Force’s own squadrons, Saltzman told me, were still tracking pieces of junk that date to the 2007 explosion. “You know, the other domains kind of clean themselves up after war,” Saltzman said. “You shoot an airplane down, it falls out of the sky. Ships sink out of the sea lanes. Even on land, you bring the bulldozers in and you move things around. But space doesn’t heal itself.”

Debris has led military strategists to ponder a related issue: In space, it’s difficult to get out of the way of conflict. Right now, Saltzman noted, if you pull up real-time data to see where flights are around the world, the airspace over Ukraine is empty. “You will see a void,” he said. “Commercial air traffic does not want to fly over Ukraine.” The same thing happens in shipping lanes, like the Strait of Hormuz, when the Middle East is in turmoil, as it is now. “So in other domains, refugees, displaced persons, people get out of the way of conflict. Commercial…

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