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On December 20, 2019, the United States Space Force (USSF) became the sixth branch of the US military with the passing of the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2020. It was the first new branch since the US Air Force was established in 1947.

Nine months later, on September 1, 2020, the Space Force inducted its first class of deployed Guardians, as they are called. Twenty members of the US Air Force trained in space operations and other core space career fields transferred to the new branch, making them the first Space Force members engaged in support of combat operations.

What does the Space Force do?

Housed within the Air Force, Space Force operates as its own department with its own duties. They are: to protect the interests of the United States in space; to deter aggression in, from, and to space; and to conduct space operations in service of America’s national security.

Just as the US Navy protects the country at sea, space is its own domain. This includes civilian, commercial, and military activity — think civilian space travel and exploration, commercial satellite technology, and cyber warfare. The Space Force is charged with protecting and defending American military capabilities and economic interests in the space realm.

The Space Force is differentiated from NASA, which is the United States’ civilian space agency. NASA astronauts and scientists are dedicated to space exploration and scientific discovery. There is crossover between the military and NASA, however. Many NASA employees are veterans. For example, NASA’s first class of astronauts, the Mercury 7, were all military test pilots.

Where does the Space Force spend its budget?

The five-year plan for establishing the Space Force includes creating a headquarters within the Pentagon (fiscal year 2020), transferring select missions and units to the USSF (FY 2021–2022), and eventually developing new ways to organize, train, and equip its forces (2023–2024).

In 2020, funding went towards the operation to establish its headquarters. This ramp up period allowed the USSF to establish the necessary “policies, procedures, and systems to operate.”

In 2021, funding expanded with the transfer of missions, forces, and programs that had been planned to begin one year after its establishment. This year’s budget included procurement as well as research, development, test and evaluation (RDT&E), which constituted 67% of the total budget proposal. The 2024 budget request is similarly allocated with 64% of the Space Force budget covering RDT&E.

Since the Defense Department has identified China and Russia as looming threats to US space capabilities, the department plans to focus next year’s efforts on building “resilient, ready, combat-credible space forces” by “accelerating the pivot towards resilient satellite constellations, ground stations, networks and data links,” Saltzman said.

The Space Force budget continues to increase. In 2020, it received $40 million for establishing operations. In 2021, as the branch became fully operational, it received $15.4 billion in total funding. Two years later, this amount was nearly doubled at $26.3 billion.

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Why was the Space Force established?

According to agency documents, the Department of Defense “must be prepared to assure freedom of operation in space, deter attacks, and defeat space and counterspace threats.” The Space Force was launched to protect and defend national interests “in the face of a changing space environment.”

The department cites what it calls the “growing challenges” of operating in space.

When describing the types of threats the Space Force is most concerned with, Gen. B. Chance Saltzman, Chief of Space Operations, defined two: threats from space assets, and threats to space assets.

The first set includes threats from countries such asChina and Russia, whose space capabilities could target US interests on the ground or at sea.

For the second, he described a range of threats, including “cyber warfare activities, electronic attack platforms, directed energy lasers designed to blind or damage satellite sensors, ground-to-orbit missiles to destroy satellites and space-to-space orbital engagement systems that can attack US satellites in space."

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