U.S. Space Force Will Challenge Russia and China Military Power Beyond This World

President Donald Trump has announced his intention to build a new military branch dedicated to taking on threats in outer space, a step already taken by top rivals Russia and China.

Trump announced Monday that he would instruct the Defense Department to begin working on the so-called "Space Force" that would be "separate but equal" to the U.S. Air Force. The Republican leader argued that the planned sixth branch to the military was necessary to avoid "China and Russia and other countries leading us."

"When it comes to defending America, it is not enough to merely have an American presence in space. We must have American dominance in space. So important."

Much like the original "space race" motivated by Soviet leaps in satellite and spaceflight technology, Trump's ambitions are rooted in the fear that Washington's rivals are already looking to fortify the final frontier and that the U.S. is falling behind.

GettyImages-977952058
President Donald Trump holds up an executive order that he signed during a meeting of the National Space Council at the East Room of the White House, June 18, 2018. The order establishes the Space Force, an independent and co-equal military branch, as the sixth branch of the U.S. Armed Forces. Alex Wong/Getty Images

While space warfare has received considerable attention in works of science fiction, there have been no known clashes between nations beyond Earth's atmosphere. A widely destructive 1962 U.S. nuclear test in space helped pave the way for the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, to which 107 nations—including the U.S., Russia and China—are a party.

The Soviet Union also tested weapons in space, and, shortly after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Russia formed the Russian Space Forces in 1992 out of previous space-focused programs run by Moscow. The Russian Space Forces were replaced by the Russian Aerospace Defense Forces in 2011, but later reinstated after that branch was merged with the Russian Air Force.

The Russian Space Forces now operate under the umbrella of the Russian Aerospace Forces and, like many other aspects of the Russian military, Russian President Vladimir Putin has sought to reinvigorate the branch to its former Soviet glory and beyond.

Related: Russia and China are testing missiles that could blast U.S. satellites out of space

China, which has been increasingly building its defense ties with Russia, has also envisioned space as a crucial target for widespread military reforms. Chinese President Xi Jinping has embarked on a sprawling reorganization of the world's largest standing armed forces, including the 2015 addition of the Strategic Support Force, which oversees space, cyber and electronic warfare missions.

Both Russia and China have pursued anti-satellite weaponry and Trump's "America First" National Security Strategy released in December frequently listed "space" along with air, maritime and cyberdefense commands. In reference to "other countries" working on counter-space weapons, the document warned that "any harmful interference with or an attack upon critical components of our space architecture that directly affects this vital U.S. interest will be met with a deliberate response at a time, place, manner, and domain of our choosing."

RussiaSpaceMissileLaunch
The Russian military tests an upgrade for its A-135 anti-ballistic missile system, a sophisticated missile shield designed to block Moscow from air and space attacks, at the Sary Shagan testing range in Kazakhstan, April 1, 2018. Russia and China have also reportedly tested weapons designed specifically to knock out satellites. Russian Ministry of Defense

Trump is not alone in advocating for a greater military focus on space. Last June, the House Committee on Armed Services voted on a proposal to include the "U.S. Space Corps" in this year's National Defense Authorization Act, but the move was opposed by the various military leaders and later dropped in favor of boosting support for the existing U.S. Air Force Space Command.

The idea received widespread attention once again in March when Trump himself told the Miramar Marine Corps Air Station in San Diego that his "new national strategy for space recognizes that space is a war-fighting domain, just like the land, air, and sea."

"We may even have a Space Force, develop another one, Space Force. We have the Air Force. We'll have the Space Force. We have the Army, the Navy. I was saying it the other day because we're doing a tremendous amount of work in space. I said maybe we need a new force, we'll call it the Space Force. And I was not really serious. Then I said 'what a great idea, maybe we'll have to do that,'" he said.

Russia, which previously accused the U.S. of trying to "militarize" space in January, likened Trump's comments in March to "opening a Pandora's box." China, too, has condemned U.S. efforts to enhance war-fighting capabilities in space, and Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang responded directly to Trump's most recent call to build a "Space Force."

"We have noted relevant reports. Outer space is all humanity's property. China always advocates the peaceful use of outer space and opposes the placement of weapons and an arms race in outer space," Geng said during a daily press briefing Tuesday. "In particular, we oppose turning outer space into a battlefield. We hope that all parties could work together to ensure that outer space will forever be peaceful and tranquil."