One Small Step for Trump’s Space Force

The United States officially resurrects U.S. Space Command, but the fight for a Space Force is not yet done.

The Space Shuttle Discovery is the backdrop as U.S. Vice President Mike Pence speaks during a meeting of the National Space Council at the National Air and Space Museum's, Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center, in Chantilly, Virginia, on Aug. 20.
The Space Shuttle Discovery is the backdrop as U.S. Vice President Mike Pence speaks during a meeting of the National Space Council at the National Air and Space Museum's, Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center, in Chantilly, Virginia, on Aug. 20. Mark Wilson/Getty Images

The United States on Thursday reestablished U.S. Space Command as the military’s operational arm in space, but the fate of President Donald Trump’s promised “Space Force” is still up in the air.

The original U.S. Space Command, created in 1985 to coordinate the space operations of the different armed services, was disbanded in 2002 after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The new version is the first step in the Trump administration’s response to China and Russia’s emerging capability to disrupt U.S. space operations—through electronic jamming, shooting down satellites, and more. 

“This is a landmark day,” said Trump at a ceremony in the White House Rose Garden on Thursday. “Space Command will boldly deter aggression and outpace America’s rivals by far.”

The ultimate goal is to establish a Space Force as a sixth branch of the armed services under the Air Force that would organize, train, and equip a corps of military space operators—a step that still requires congressional approval. Trump was initially ridiculed for his focus on a Space Force, but the idea has gained traction in the Pentagon and on Capitol Hill. In a sign of the proposal’s international support, France announced the creation of its own space force last month.

Experts, too, agree that better organizing the U.S. military and intelligence community to address space operations is a critical national security issue.

“The Trump administration’s push to create a new military department, known as the Space Force, has generated a fair amount of skepticism and more than a few nerdy jokes,” wrote Todd Harrison of Center for Strategic and International Studies late last year. “Despite being easy fodder for late-night comedians … [this is] a serious national security issue because the threats posed to U.S. space systems by other nations are real and growing.”

The newly established Space Command is designed for “a different strategic environment,” in which the United States must compete for dominance with new players, Gen. Jay Raymond, the chief of U.S. Space Command, told reporters Thursday ahead of the White House ceremony. China and Russia in particular have greatly increased investment in space operations in recent years.

U.S. adversaries believe that space could be an “Achilles’ heel” for the U.S. military, Raymond said—one they want to exploit. 

“We are the best in the world at space today, [but] our level of superiority is diminishing,” he said. “Space will not be an Achilles’ heel.”

Unlike the original Space Command, the new version will have a “sharper” connection to the intelligence community—specifically the National Reconnaissance Office—as well as the space operations of U.S. allies, Raymond said.

Just as the other branches, such as the Air Force and Navy, provide forces for the geographic commands—U.S. Central Command, for example—the Space Force would train and equip the men and women responsible for U.S. space operations, Raymond explained.

But Trump’s vision for a Space Force must still overcome hurdles on Capitol Hill. House and Senate lawmakers have different views on how the Space Force will be organized, the timeline for standing it up, and its name.

In particular, the Pentagon takes issue with the Senate version of the defense policy bill, which requires a one-year transition before rewriting Title 10 of the U.S. Code to establish a new military service, sources tell Space News.

While former Defense Secretary James Mattis initially opposed the creation of a separate service for space, the Pentagon’s new leader, Mark Esper has made his support for a Space Force clear. Initially, the White House pushed for a Space Force that would be separate to the Air Force, but after pushback it revised its proposal to stand up the new service within the military’s air arm.

During his July confirmation hearing, Esper compared the Space Force to the creation of the Air Force from the Army in 1947.

“When they pulled the Army Air Corps out of the United States Army, it freed up our aviators to think about warfighting in the air domain and how you conduct warfare unencumbered by a hierarchy, if you will, that was focused on ground combat,” he said. “That’s how I think about this problem.

“I think we just got to realize that it is a new domain of warfare and it requires a different organizational construct and a different way of thinking about it,” he emphasized.

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