By Alex Ward
It all comes down to a defense budget fight for 2020.
President Donald Trump is really, really excited about a Space Force — his plan to create an entirely new branch of the US military dedicated to defending American satellites and more in space.
And though it seemed for a while that the Pentagon might try to keep it from happening, it looks like Trump may actually get his wish — that is, unless Congress turns him down.
On Thursday, Vice President Mike Pence delivered a big speech unveiling the Defense Department’s official plan to effectively create a Space Force in all but name.
Trump was ecstatic, tweeting “Space Force all the way!” just minutes after Pence’s speech ended.
But while the Pentagon can make certain moves without Congress’s approval, it’s up to lawmakers to actually authorize the new military branch.
“Congress definitely gets a vote,” Deborah Lee James, the last Air Force secretary and an open critic of the Space Force idea, told me.
Pence and Trump’s argument for creating a Space Force boils down to this: Enemies like China and Russia have, for example, tested technology to shoot down satellites, and the US wants to ensure the US can adequately defend itself against growing threats.
“What was once peaceful and uncontested is now crowded and adversarial,” Pence said on Thursday at the Pentagon. “It’s not enough to merely have an American presence in space, we must have American dominance in space. And so we will.”
The problem for Trump and Pence is that Congress hasn’t shown the same desire for a Space Force — in fact, they actually voted down a legislative proposal to create it last November.
But the White House is now hopeful they will receive congressional approval for the new military branch in the fiscal year 2020 defense budget. That’s in part because of a seeming change of heart — or at least, a capitulation — from Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis.
For much of last year, top Pentagon leaders railed against the idea of a Space Force. “The Pentagon is complicated enough,” Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson told reporters last summer. “This will make it more complex, add more boxes to the organization chart.” Mattis himself even came out against it.
Now, though, Mattis is at least somewhat supportive publicly of the idea. Which means it’s possible members of Congress may change their minds in Trump’s favor.
Expect Trump and Pence’s greatest ally in Congress for a Space Force, Rep. Mike Rogers (R-AL), to lead the way.
Rogers has said that creating the new branch is necessary for US national security, particularly because other countries are catching up to America’s power in space. “Russia and China have become near peers,” Rogers told NPR in June 2017. “They’re close to surpassing us. What we’re proposing would change that.”
He’s since led the legislative effort to create the new military service. Rogers tweeted his approval during Pence’s remarks Thursday:
I am thrilled about the news today. We in the House have been warning for years about the threats to our space assets and the unacceptably slow pace to develop more capable space systems. The report is a step in a multi-year process that will help ensure a safer, stronger America https://t.co/12SwRkaz1c
— Mike Rogers (@RepMikeRogersAL) August 9, 2018
So what happens now? Well, in the short term, the Pentagon will do what it always does: makes changes in an extremely bureaucratic, wonky, and boring way.
Here’s how the Pentagon will start creating a Space Force
The Pentagon released a report after Pence’s speech outlining four main things it will do to begin establishing a Space Force:
- Create a new Space Command, which will serve as the main Pentagon hub for all things fighting in space
- Establish the Space Operations Force, which will be made up of the military’s elite troops focusing on conflict in space
- Create the Space Development Agency, which will help the Pentagon acquire weapons to fight in space
- Ensure there are the requisite leaders and support staff to manage the day-to-day operations of the Pentagon’s operations in space
All of that boils down to the Defense Department making bureaucratic changes to deal with space in the way Trump wants.
The biggest loser in all of this will be the Air Force, which already takes the military lead on defending American items in space — like the satellites that guide your GPS system — with an agency called the Air Force Space Command.
It’s unclear as of now, though, if that organization will go away or somehow fold under new Space Force.
That’s just one of the many, many questions I and others have about what a Space Force will actually look like. There is one important thing no one questions: that space has become much more dangerous in recent years.
“Space is no longer a peaceful domain”
What was once the final frontier could soon become the front line of a future conflict.
“Space is no longer a peaceful domain,” James said in an interview in July 2017. “There is a real possibility that a conflict on Earth could bleed into space.”
There are two main reasons for that: Russia and China. According to the Defense Intelligence Agency, Russia wants to gain more power in space because it believes gaining supremacy there will allow it to win future fights on this planet. And in late 2015, China created the Strategic Support Force, which is meant to streamline and improve its space, cyber, and electronic warfare missions.
The two countries are causing problems with anti-satellite technology, too, noted Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats in a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing last May — meaning they could mess with the satellites that help the US military do its job. The Pentagon is planning to open a space-war center to counter their threats.
Okay, but, like … what sort of conflict is actually going on in space? What are we really talking about here?
Basically, there is tons of …read more