The Space Force is placing Guardians in the Pacific to offer support in outer space for both allies and the other service branches as tensions between the U.S. and China grow.
On Tuesday, the service announced that 21 civilians and Guardians will be stationed in Hawaii with U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, or INDOPACOM. It's the first assignment outside of the continental U.S. for the newest service branch and the first time Guardians have been part of a regional combatant command. The move comes as Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin has repeatedly pointed to China being a notable threat, especially in outer space.
"Everyday, Secretary Austin reminds us of the pacing challenge, and that's China." Gen. David Thompson, vice chief of space operations, told reporters Tuesday. "We very deliberately chose INDOPACOM first because we want the nation, the Department of Defense, that combatant command, and anyone who might wish us harm in that region to understand that's what we pay attention to every single day."
As recently as last month, during an event at a Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies in Arlington, Virginia, Thompson said that China is developing and fielding a wide range of technology such as jammers and lasers that could harm America's satellites. While he didn't go into detail about all of the Space Force's capabilities, he said China's growing capabilities should be alarming.
"Are they better than us? Are they not as good as us? Will we win? Will they win? Are we at parity? I can't say that," Thompson said at the time. "All I can say is that they are a serious challenge. They are a serious threat. They are serious about what they need to do. Their capabilities are close to ours."
In the 2022 National Defense Strategy released last month, the Pentagon said China is "deploying counter space capabilities that can target our Global Positioning System and other space-based capabilities that support military power and daily civilian life."
But the strategy did not address how the military would respond to an attack on a commercial satellite.
Some policy experts in Washington believe the Space Force is unequipped to take on space threats from China and Russia.
The Heritage Foundation, a Washington-based think tank, said in its annual assessment of the military released Oct. 18 that the new service has not shown "that it is ready in any way to execute defensive and offensive counterspace operations to the degree envisioned by Congress when it authorized creation of the Space Force." The foundation classified the Space Force as "weak."
Thompson said the new U.S. Space Forces Indo-Pacific command will help service branches in the region -- such as U.S. Pacific Fleet, Pacific Air Forces, Army Pacific Command and Marine Corps Forces Pacific -- know what space capabilities are at their disposal, and will also help partner nations utilize outer space to defend against enemies.
Space Force officials hope to increase their budget to take on many of those looming threats. The service is asking for $24.5 billion in its 2023 budget request, a 40% increase from the previous year, a number which will likely only grow in subsequent years as the nascent branch expands.
Gen. Bradley Chance Saltzman, the new chief of space operations, said during the activation ceremony for Space Forces INDOPACOM on Tuesday that the creation of the new unit was a historic moment for the force, and a necessary one if conflict with China blossoms.
"I would be remiss if I didn't highlight the historic nature of today's ceremony. This is the first Space Force service component to stand up in a regional combatant command," Saltzman said during his speech. "The Space Force must be ready, not just supporting U.S. Space Command, but all combatant commands. Because a potential fight against the [People's Republic of China] isn't going to be a single combatant command show."
Thompson told reporters Tuesday that the Space Force will likely send Guardians to South Korea and U.S. Central Command "sooner rather than later," and the service also plans to stand up units in Europe at a later date.
Those expansions come in the wake of North Korea's reported intercontinental ballistic missile testing. Thompson said growth in both the Space Force's budget and its presence overseas is a good sign for the service.
"I think you've seen, year after year, increases in our budget, which I think reflects everybody's understanding of the need for more capability and [to] provide it," Thompson told reporters. "I think it's a reflection of an understanding, not just from INDOPACOM, but from the nation's leadership, that we need more capability in space that we can't operate effectively without it."
-- Thomas Novelly can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @TomNovelly.