US military establishes space unit in South Korea

The US military officially launched a space force unit in South Korea on Wednesday, its first such facility on foreign territory, which will likely allow Washington to better monitor its rivals North Korea, China and Russia.

The activation of US Space Forces Korea at Osan Air Base near Seoul comes after North Korea tested a barrage of nuclear-capable ballistic missiles aimed at hitting the US mainland and its allies South Korea and Japan in recent months.

“Just 48 miles north of us there is an existential threat; a threat we must deter, deter and – if necessary – defeat,” said Lt. Col. said Joshua McCullion, chief of the new space unit, during the activation ceremony in Osan. He was apparently referring to North Korea, whose heavily fortified border with South Korea is just an hour’s drive from Seoul, the southern capital.

The unit is part of the US Space Force, which was launched in December 2019 under then-President Donald Trump as the first new US military service in more than 70 years.

The Space Force has been viewed soberly as an affirmation of the need to organize more effectively the defense of US interests in space – particularly satellites used for civilian and military navigation, reconnaissance and communications. A previous Pentagon report said China and Russia had gone to great lengths to develop technology that could allow them to disrupt or destroy American and allied satellites in a crisis or conflict.

US Space Forces Korea reports to a larger US Space Force unit established last month within the Indo-Pacific Command in Hawaii.

Jung Chang Wook, head of the Korea Defense Study Forum think tank in Seoul, said the US Space Force was created to bring together various surveillance assets, including space-based satellites, into one organization for effective and systemic management and development. He said his unit in South Korea would operate like one field unit, while the other in the Indo-Pacific Command would be their headquarters.

“US Space Forces Korea would maintain, operate and evaluate the appropriate equipment. Simply put, I would say that actual US space operations are conducted at Osan Air Base,” Jung said. He said the main mission of US Space Forces Korea will be to receive, process and analyze the massive amount of data and information being transmitted by US satellites.

“The US military is faster, better connected, better informed, more accurate and deadlier because of space,” Gen. Paul LaCamera, commander of the 28,500 US troops in South Korea, said during the ceremony. “In particular, today’s activation of US Space Forces Korea here enhances our ability to defend homelands and ensure peace and security in the Korean Peninsula and Northeast Asia.”

The U.S. military in South Korea said that one of the key mission areas that the space unit in South Korea will focus on “are missile warning operations, providing near real-time in-theater detection and warning of ballistic missile launches.” The new entity’s responsibilities will also include coordinating space operations and services such as positional navigation and timekeeping, as well as satellite communications within the region.

Jung said the launch of a space unit in South Korea is likely primarily aimed at better policing North Korea, followed by China and then Russia.

The United States and South Korea have expanded their regular military drills and pushed to further strengthen their joint defense capabilities in the face of North Korea’s advancing nuclear program. North Korea has threatened to use nuclear weapons pre-emptively in possible conflicts with the United States and South Korea, and the US military has warned the North that using nuclear weapons “will lead to the end of this regime”.

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Associated Press video journalist Kim Yong Ho from Osan, South Korea, contributed to this report.

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