Trump’s Space Force Faces Hurdles in the Pentagon and Congress

The U.S. president's plan could put him at odds with his defense secretary.

Astronaut Bruce McCandless II participates in an extravehicular activity outside the Challenger shuttle during the STS-41B mission in April 1983. (NASA)
Astronaut Bruce McCandless II participates in an extravehicular activity outside the Challenger shuttle during the STS-41B mission in April 1983. (NASA)

President Donald Trump’s surprise announcement yesterday that he wants to establish a separate “Space Force” as a sixth branch of the U.S. armed forces may pit him against top military leaders and lawmakers.

During a Monday meeting of the National Space Council, Trump declared that he is directing the Department of Defense to immediately begin the process of creating a space force that is “separate but equal” to the Air Force, the service currently responsible for most of the U.S. military assets and operations in space. The president’s directive to create a separate entity dedicated to military space operations appeared to take the Pentagon by surprise, after senior leaders spent the last year quashing a congressional proposal to do just that.

“We understand the President’s guidance. Our Policy Board will begin working on this issue, which has implications for intelligence operations for the Air Force, Army, Marines and Navy,” spokeswoman Dana W. White said in a statement. “Working with Congress, this will be a deliberate process with a great deal of input from multiple stakeholders.”

Already, Trump’s plan is getting pushback on Capitol Hill. Rep. Mike Turner (R-Ohio), chairman of the House Armed Services Tactical Air and Land Forces subcommittee pointed out soon after Trump’s comments, the president cannot single-handedly establish a new service branch. “Establishing a service branch requires congressional action,” Turner said in a statement. “We still don’t know what a Space Force would do, who is going to be in it, or how much is it going to cost.”

But the president’s remarks could influence a set of Pentagon reports on the issue due to Congress in August and December, paving the way for lawmakers to include language to create the new space force in next year’s defense policy bill for 2020.

The December report, in particular, is expected to include a road map for creating an independent department for national security space, which should contain the legislative language needed, said Todd Harrison, director of the aerospace security project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

It not clear that lawmakers will ultimately be swayed by Trump’s directive, however. “Some will be encouraged by the president’s statement to try to do just that,” said one congressional staffer. “But there is no consensus in Congress that we should. In fact, I think there is more opposition to a space force than support for it.”

A previous attempt on Capitol Hill to support a “Space Corps” within the Air Force already failed.

Last year Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Ala.), chairman of the House Armed Services Strategic Forces subcommittee, spearheaded an effort — over Defense Secretary Jim Mattis’s objections — to insert language into last year’s defense bill that would have created a space corps sitting under the Air Force umbrella, similar to the Marine Corps-Navy structure. “I believe it is premature to add additional organization and administrative tail to the department at a time I am trying to reduce overhead,” Mattis wrote to Rep. Turner last year, in an attempt to thwart the proposal.

Ultimately Rogers’ Space Corps effort failed – legislators removed the language in the final defense policy bill for 2018.

Although the details are not yet clear, it appears the new space force would differ crucially from Rogers’ space corps effort in that it would be an entirely separate entity outside the Air Force, likely with a separate chain of command.

Though the latest space force effort appears to have the support of Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford, who Trump asked to oversee the change (Dunford responded “got it”), Mattis is not the only senior military official on record repeatedly opposing the establishment of a separate entity for space. Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson and Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein also voiced opposition to the space corps plan.

“I do not support it at this time in our history based on where we are in this transition from a benign environment to a warfighting domain,” Goldfein said during a Senate Armed Forces Subcommittee on Strategic Forces hearing last year. “Right now, to get focused on a large organizational change would actually slow us down.”

And Gen. John Raymond, commander of Air Force Space Command, has advocated the Air Force’s imperative to “normalize … space as a war-fighting domain” in lieu of establishing a separate service dedicated to space.

Proponents of a space force or space corps argue that space operations often play second fiddle to jets and nuclear missiles within the Air Force, and that space needs its own separate funding stream and career path. But the Air Force says it has recently made moves to prioritize space, including establishing a new three-star vice commander of Air Force Space Command, and accelerating fielding of a next-generation missile warning satellite constellation.

The president has also apparently not yet put the new charge in writing. He did sign a directive on space policy during the event, but it primarily addresses space traffic management and contains no mention of a new space force.

Lara Seligman is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @laraseligman