During ‘space force’ debate, Kaine calls for rules on orbital debris

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WASHINGTON — Sen. Tim Kaine is worried about space debris.

As the Senate Armed Services Committee convened Thursday to debate President Trump’s plan to establish a space force as a new branch of the military, the Virginia Democratic senator asked top military officials what can be done to regulate orbiting debris that can threaten astronauts and equipment.

“I want to take it in a different direction, I would say take it to 30,000 feet. We’re talking about a space force, so I should probably call it a low-earth orbit,” Kaine said.

Kaine pointed to India’s recent destruction of one of its own satellites in a missile launch, which created 400 pieces of orbital debris and threatened astronauts onboard the International Space Station, the Guardian reported.

India is an ally, Kaine noted, but “there is some concern that adversaries create debris intentionally, too.” He said, “this is an issue that really needs some rules.”

U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

Patrick Shanahan, Trump’s acting secretary of defense agreed that space is clearly an area that needs a better set of rules.

Kaine said he hopes the United States “will play a leadership role in that,” suggesting that an international treaty could help set new rules globally.

Kaine’s comments came as his colleagues on the committee — Republicans and Democrats alike — expressed skepticism about Trump’s plan for a new space force.

Sen. Angus King (I-Maine) said his impression was that the military was “doing a good job” already.

“We’re dominant in space right now,” he said. “I understand the threat and I understand our adversaries are moving forward, but I don’t understand how adding a box to an organizational chart is going to give us some kind of qualitative military edge.”

Gen. John Hyten, commander of U.S. Strategic Command, replied, “I think we have been doing a good job. But we’ve been doing a good job in an environment where space has not been contested. What is changing is we have adversaries that are building significant capabilities that can challenge us in space.”

Senior military officials told lawmakers that while the United States currently has a competitive advantage in space, nations including China and Russia are looking to exploit U.S. vulnerabilities. And they urged lawmakers to support a new program within the Air Force that focuses exclusively on deterring threats in space.

“We’re going to have a space force someday,” Hyten said. “I think what the committee has to decide is when is that going to happen … You want to get ahead of the problem, not trail it, not come in response to a catastrophe.”

King stressed that he wasn’t sure adding an organization to the Defense Department’s structure would have the intended effect.

“To create a new bureaucracy that’s going to cost us half-a-billion dollars a year, I’ve got to be convinced that there’s some incremental value there.”

The Defense Department estimated that once fully established, the new force would cost about $500 million annually.

“None of the ideas I’ve heard today clearly spell out how a space force leads to improved security in space,” said Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.).

“Instead all I see is how a new space force will create one more organization to ask Congress for money. And there’s no reason to believe that adding an entirely new space force bureaucracy and pouring buckets more money into it is going to reduce our overall vulnerability in space. I just think the taxpayers deserve better than this.”

Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) wondered whether the proposed approach was the best option. “I guess we need some convincing that there is a necessity for a sixth branch within our armed services,” she said.

Some Republicans on the panel were more open to the idea.

“I think president was right to make this a target that we need to achieve,” said Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.). “So to me it’s not a matter of whether we should do it, it’s how we should do it and when we should do it.”

But he added that Congress would be reluctant to shell out much funding for the new military branch. “In reality, you’re not going to get a whole lot more money, so you’re going to have to create this force within current spending run rates, for the most part.”