President Donald Trump said Monday that he would direct the Defense Department and the Pentagon to create a new “Space Force” — an independent sixth branch of the armed forces.
Trump has floated this idea before — in March, he said he initially conceived it as a joke — but has offered few details about how the Space Force would operate.
Trump said Monday that the branch would be “separate but equal” from the Air Force. Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, would oversee its creation.
Saying that he does not want “China and other countries leading us,” Trump said space was a national security issue.
U.S. Rep. Mike Turner, R-Dayton, who has been an advocate of top Air Force leaders retaining the mission, said setting up a Space Force requires congressional action.
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“Congress has asked (the Department of Defense) to study how we handle space. 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,” he said in an email.
A congressionally mandated report evaluating a Space Force is due in August, he said.
“After we get the report that we required as a legislative body and the President signed off on, then this issue can be appropriately evaluated for what’s best for national security,” said Turner, chairman of the Tactical Air and Land Forces subcommittee.
The Outer Space Treaty, which the United States signed in 1967, bars states from testing weapons and establishing military bases on the moon and other celestial bodies. It also prohibits the placement of weapons of mass destruction in orbit around Earth. But the treaty has no enforcement mechanism (indeed, the Air Force’s unmanned space plane, the X-37B, has completed several clandestine missions).
Retired Air Force Lt. Gen. C.D. Moore II, former commander of the Air Force Life Cycle Management Center at Wright-Patterson, told this news outlet space has a growing mission, but he remained neutral on who should have the responsibility.
“The space demand is going to grow in importance for the nation,” the retired three-star general said. “… I’m not going to be overly defensive of the Air Force retaining that part of the mission. I think the Air Force will continue to be an important (player) regardless of how this plays out.”
Loren B. Thompson. a senior defense analyst with the Virginia-based Lexington Institute and an industry consultant, said a Space Force could be carved out of the exiting Air Force while still keeping in within the existing institutional framework.
“This is a good idea or bad idea depending on what the president means and I’m not sure how much thought he has given to it,” he said. “If the president means we need to pay more attention to space, he is definitely right. If on the other hand, he means a military service to wage war in space, that would be premature.”
“When people hear the phrase space wars they think of Star Wars. What we have today is just bunch of satellites,” he said. “There’s no imperial battle cruiser at the Pentagon.”
Intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions spread among the services may have the biggest impact of a new Space Force.
Any transfer of Air Force responsibility and resources would have to be done “in careful coordination with what they do,” said Richard Aboulafia, an aerospace analyst with the Virginia-based Teal Group told this news outlet.
Trump has floated creating a Space Force for months, but the idea goes back at least a year to a proposal by U.S. Reps. Mike D. Rogers, R-Ala., and Jim Cooper, D.-Tenn. Rogers, chairman of the House Armed Services strategic forces subcommittee, and Cooper, the ranking Democrat on the subcommittee, argued that it made sense to have a “Space Corps,” a separate branch of service with its own four-star general serving on the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Under their plan, it would have reported to the Department of the Air Force, in similar fashion to how the Marine Corps reports to the Department of the Navy.
Last fall, that proposal was scrapped amid resistance from senior Pentagon officials, including Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson and Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein, who said it would create unnecessary costs and bureaucracy.
“I oppose the creation of a new military service and additional organizational layers at a time when we are focused on reducing overhead and integrating joint warfighting functions,” Mattis said in October in a memo to Sen. John McCain, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Some are worried that the Space Force would duplicate existing efforts. The Air Force already maintains a Space Command, for example.
In an exclusive interview with the Dayton Daily News last year, Wilson noted she was opposed to more “bureaucracy” a Space Corps would add.
“We’re moving forward to acquire better and faster, to train … space warfighters because we’re going to have to defend satellites we have in space to organize effectively and I don’t need more bureaucracy imposed by others,” she said. “I need to be able to move forward.”
“Our adversaries know that we depend very heavily on space and we’re vulnerable there, so we have to take that seriously and prepare for that,” she said. “I think the Air Force is doing that.”
Retired Air Force Lt. Gen. Dave Deptula, dean of the Air Force Association-founded Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies, described the decision to create a Space Force as “another example of ready, fire, aim,” in a Monday news briefing.
The announcement was made at a meeting of the National Space Council, at which Trump signed a new space policy directive aimed at reducing debris in Earth’s orbit. The policy sets up new guidelines for satellite design and operation, as well as tracking the growing amount of clutter in space.
But, citing the number of regulations his administration has dismantled since he took office, Trump warned the space council, “Don’t get too carried away.”
The president also reasserted plans to land astronauts on the moon again and, eventually, Mars. But his administration has provided few specifics about the architecture of its moon program or a timeline for returning to the lunar surface.
The Washington Post’s Aaron Gregg contributed to this report.