Recently retired U.S. Air Force Lieutenant General Steven L. Kwast gave a lecture last month that seems to further signal that the next major battlefield will be outer space. While military leadership rattling the space sabers is nothing new, Kwast’s lecture included comments that heavily hint at the possibility that the United States military and its industry partners may have already developed next-generation technologies that have the potential to drastically change the aerospace field, and human civilization, forever. Is this mere posturing or could we actually be on the verge of making science fiction a reality?
Who Is Steven Kwast?
According to his official USAF biography, Lt. Gen. Kwast graduated from the United States Air Force Academy with a degree in astronautical engineering, and also holds a master’s degree in public policy from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. Kwast previously served as Commander of the 47th Operations Group at Laughlin Air Force Base and the 4th Fighter Wing at Seymour Johnson AFB. Kwast boasts more than 3,300 flight hours in the F-15E, T-6, T-37, and T-38 and over 650 combat hours.
Lt. Gen. Kwast most recently served as Commander of the Air Education and Training Command (AETC) at Joint Base San Antonio (JBSA), but retired in August. According to some reports, Kwast was prematurely relieved of his duties at JBSA and blacklisted for promotion after speaking out on space-related issues despite a service-wide gag order. Kwast declined to comment on the reports and retired on September 1, 2019.
Despite the controversy surrounding his removal from his post at AETC, some defense analysts and Lt. Gen. Kwast’s own supporters within the Armed Forces were suggesting prior to his retirement that he should be appointed as Commander of the Pentagon's budding Space Force. Kwast has published several op-eds in recent years pushing for the U.S. military to take on a greater role in space in order to ensure American economic dominance and what he sees as the continued proliferation of American values.
Gaining The High Ground In Space
Kwast delivered a lecture at Hillsdale College in Washington, D.C. on November 20, 2019, titled “The Urgent Need for a U.S. Space Force.” Kwast’s wide-ranging speech described the power of new technologies to revolutionize humankind, referencing the competitive advantage the discovery of fire offered to early humans and the strategic value that nuclear weapons offered 20th-century superpowers. When it comes to current revolutionary technologies, Kwast says the “the power of space will change world power forever” and that it’s up to the United States military to leverage that power:
"As a historian, reflecting on the fact that throughout the history of mankind… technology has always changed world power. But the story of rejecting the new and holding and clinging to the paradigms of the past is why no civilization has ever lasted forever, and values are trumped by other values when another civilization figures out a way of finding a competitive advantage. The nature of power, you either have it and your values rule or you do not have it and you must submit. We see that play out again and again in history and it’s playing out now."
As has been common as of late, Lt. Gen Kwast cites rapidly growing Chinese military and technological advances as the reason why the United States must invest heavily in new space-based technologies. “We can say today we are dominant in space but the trend lines are what you have to look at and they will pass us in the next few years if we do not do something. They will win this race and then they will put roadblocks up to space,” Kwast argues, “because once you get the high ground, that strategic high ground, it’s curtains for anybody trying to get to that high ground behind them.”
Kwast claims China is already building a “Navy in space” complete with the space-based equivalents of "battleships and destroyers" which are “able to maneuver and kill and communicate with dominance, and we [the United States] are not.” Kwast’s speech centers on the thesis that the United States needs a Space Force in order to counter Chinese advances and win the competition over the economy of the future and, as an extension, who sets the values of the future:
"Space is the Navy for the 21st century economy, a networked economy that will dominate any linear terrestrial economy in the four engines of growth and dominance that change world power: transportation, information, energy, and manufacturing. [...] Whoever gets to the new market sets the values for that market. And we could either have the market with the values of our Constitution [...] or we could have the values we see manifest in China."
As we’ve reported previously, there have been hints of radical new technologies under development by the military and, just as in Kwast’s speech, Chinese advances have been cited as the reason why these technologies are needed. China has been rapidly expanding its presence in space in recent years, placing a lander on the far side of the moon in late 2018 in what some say was a push to scout natural resources with which to develop a permanent lunar manufacturing center. China has also been developing “mothership” aircraft from which to rapidly and unpredictably launch spaceplanes and other payloads into space. The country has also launched several eyebrow-raising satellites in recent years which some analysts claim could be used in anti-satellite warfare. Beyond all this, they have been investing heavily in a traditional space program that includes many facets of manned and unmanned space technologies that rivals, and in some ways, exceeds our own.
Setting the Stage for 21st Century Warfare
Kwast argues that the scientists, engineers, historians, and strategists of today have been pushing the U.S. Congress to more heavily and more rapidly fund the Space Force and associated technologies, but there is still some pushback and confusion as to why these are presently needed. Kwast ultimately makes the case that the United States must be able to bring kinetic power, non-kinetic power, and informational power to the battlefield cheaper and faster than its adversaries in order to ensure strategic advantage in space.
Around the 12:00 mark in the speech, Kwast makes the somewhat bizarre claim that the U.S. currently possesses revolutionary technologies that could render current aerospace capabilities obsolete:
"The technology is on the engineering benches today. But most Americans and most members of Congress have not had time to really look deeply at what is going on here. But I’ve had the benefit of 33 years of studying and becoming friends with these scientists. This technology can be built today with technology that is not developmental to deliver any human being from any place on planet Earth to any other place in less than an hour."
Kwast’s comment is only one of several curious comments made by military leadership lately and they do seem to claim that we could be on the precipice of a great leap in transportation technology. We also don't know exactly where he is coming from on all this as it is not necessarily the direct wheelhouse of someone who was running the Air Force's training portfolio, although it does have overlaps. Whether or not the revolutionary aerospace technologies Kwast mentions have actually been developed is one thing, but Kwast’s lecture, his recent op-eds, and his supporters make it clear that there are many within the U.S. military and analyst community who have felt that there is a great need to boost investment in American space technologies and the U.S. military’s presence in space. That vision is certainly taking root across the Defense Department.
Is all this setting the stage for a new space race that will benefit mankind by furthering scientific and technological development, or is it ushering in the conditions for the first great space war? Only time will tell, but according to Kwast, the technologies needed to win that war may be more science fact than fiction.