The United Space Force has long struggled with being taken seriously since being established during the Trump administration in late 2019. Leaders have often voiced their frustrations, arguing that the military branch's mission statement needs work as it grapples with the core question of why it exists in the first place.
But that doesn't mean the Space Force is lacking in the creativity department. During a recent ceremony at the Peterson Space Force Base in Colorado, the Space Force unveiled an official painting by artist Rick Herter, which depicts a "futuristic US Space vehicle intercepting an adversary satellite, who in turn is positioning to disable a friendly satellite," according to a statement.
The doors of the vehicle are opening as it "prepares to defend the friendly satellite," suggesting it may swallow the offending satellite whole, Kirby-style.
It's difficult to make what to make of the colorful drawing, let alone its purpose. Are we looking at the future of space warfare? Or were Space Force officials simply looking to fill a blank wall in their offices?
Strangely, the fact that the painting seems oddly out-of-date was very much the intention, according to the Space Force.
"Because of the highly classified nature of many space operations, SpOC requested that Herter rely on historic space planes and his own imagination," said command historian Christopher Rumley in the statement.
According to the Space Force, Herter was inspired by the design of a 1950s space plane called X-20 Dyna-Soar, which was developed for aerial reconnaissance and even intercepting enemy satellites. The program, however, was shuttered in 1963 before construction even began.
The design is also vaguely reminiscent of the X-37 space plane, an orbital test platform the Space Force took over from the Air Force Space Command in 2019, which has remained shrouded in secrecy despite numerous missions and iterations over the last 17 years.
In short, we're not entirely sure what the Space Force is trying to hint at with this art project, nevermind whether it accurately reflects its mandate or future in any meaningful way.
While there's a lot we still don't know about the current advancements of these systems — military powers are, of course, incentivized to keep their efforts under tight wraps — we've already seen the chaos these systems can wreak.
In November 2021, Russia blew up a retired Soviet satellite in orbit using a missile interceptor, turning it into well over 1,000 pieces of potentially dangerous bits of debris, and triggering outrage among the country's adversaries.
But have we learned our lesson? After all, littering our planet's orbit with thousands of pieces of space debris is bad for every world power trying to establish a presence in orbit.
In other words, nations could be looking for alternative approaches like the one depicted in Herter's work.
His painting shows a more careful approach, gently nabbing a satellite in orbit. But is that a realistic vision of the future — or an imagination run wild?
Chances are, even the Space Force is still trying to nail down what the future of space warfare will end up looking like.
And it's not for a lack of motivation. Earlier this year, Space Force major general David Miller complained during an online event that the branch should stop waffling around debating whether space is a warfighting domain and get to the fun stuff: building counterspace weapons that send a clear message to adversaries.
However, Miller also admitted that the Space Force still hasn't fully "fielded a globally capable, precision-quality, custody focused space domain awareness enterprise" — let alone an approach to disabling adversarial satellites.
In short, finding a solution probably will need as much creativity as the Space Force can get its hands on, even if inspiration comes in the form of a hand-drawn painting.
More on anti-satellite: General: Space Force Should Stop Waffling and Build Weapons
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