The Pentagon is moving ahead with President Trump’s call to establish a “Space Force” as a potential sixth branch of the U.S. armed forces, with top officials scrambling to tamp down reports of disagreement between military leaders and the White House ahead of a high-profile speech Thursday by Vice President Mike Pence.
Mr. Pence, the administration’s liaison with the Defense Department on the coming Space Force, will address reporters at the Pentagon on Thursday and is expected to formally release an internal military review of what it will take to create the new command.
But analysts and former military officials say the concept of a formal Space Force and the push to establish it quickly are being driven almost entirely by the White House and its allies on Capitol Hill, and that a skeptical Pentagon is grudgingly going along with the plan amid political pressure from the other side of the Potomac.
Indeed, insiders say the fact that the Pentagon delayed its long-awaited study on setting up a Space Force — initially scheduled to be released last week — could be evidence of behind-the-scenes dissension between military leaders and political officials inside the Trump administration. More broadly, specialists argue the entire concept of a Space Force as a wholly separate branch of the military is one that many Defense Department officials privately don’t support, but that they’re being strong-armed by an administration eager to make a lasting mark on U.S. military doctrine and to further cement American dominance in space.
One reason for the resistance — a fear the Space Force will take resources and budget dollars away from existing service branches and dilute their operational authority. For the Air Force, the realignment could mean surrendering control of existing space assets, satellites, launch sites and other ground operations to the new command. Parts of the other services would be shifted as well.
“At this point I think it is becoming clear that DoD and the Air Force are not in the driver’s seat when it comes to this issue,” said Todd Harrison, director of the Aerospace Security Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Bridging the divide
Mr. Pence’s widely anticipated speech Thursday — coupled with supportive comments earlier this week from Defense Secretary James Mattis — are part of an effort to present a united front and to demonstrate that there’s no daylight between the military and the political leadership in the White House.
“Absolutely we need to address space as a developing war-fighting domain,” Mr. Mattis told reporters earlier this week. “We’ll get it right. We’ll work it through the Congress. We have the direction from the president and we’re underway.”
Mr. Mattis added that he’s been in close consultation with Mr. Pence, who heads the White House’s National Space Council, and other top administration officials.
The defense chief’s recent remarks represent a clear change of heart from just a year ago, when Mr. Mattis in a letter to Congress expressed doubt about the wisdom of a separate military branch to fight in space.
“At a time when we are trying to integrate the department’s joint war-fighting functions, I do not wish to add a separate service that would likely present a narrower and even parochial approach to space operations,” Mr. Mattis wrote last year.
Mr. Mattis now suggests that he favors setting up the Space Force as a unified command, such as U.S. Central Command, rather than an independent branch.
That differs from what the president has said he wants. Mr. Trump earlier this year explicitly called for the Space Force to become the sixth branch of the military, on equal footing with the Army, Navy, Marine Corps, Coast Guard and Air Force.
Such a massive overhaul — which would constitute the first new branch of the military since the Air Force was formally created in 1947 — would have to be approved by Congress. Lawmakers also would have to hash out a complicated funding arrangement, and would surely have to move money currently allocated to the Air Force Space Command and other arms of the military to the new Space Force.
It’s also unclear exactly how popular the idea is in Congress. Some lawmakers — such as Rep. Mike Rogers, Alabama Republican who chairs the House subcommittee on strategic forces — are outspoken supporters of the proposal. Most lawmakers, however, haven’t explicitly endorsed Mr. Trump’s plan, and setting up a Space Force on equal footing with the other branches surely would be a long slog on Capitol Hill.
The entire process, specialists say, would take years. Under a best-case scenario, the Space Force as a separate military branch could be operational sometime in the early-to-middle part of next decade.
“Congress won’t take this up in legislation until next year in the [fiscal year 2020 defense spending bill] and that likely won’t become law until late next year,” Mr. Harrison said. “If that bill includes language creating a Space Force, then it will probably be another year before the Space Force initially stands up. So now we are talking about late 2020 or early 2021, and then another couple of years before the transition is completed.”
A potential compromise
In the meantime, Defense Department officials seem to be moving ahead with a slightly less ambitious plan. Citing a draft copy of the looming Space Force report, Defense One reported last week that the Pentagon plans to announce a strategy that would make the Space Force its own combatant command and create a new joint military agency responsible for buying space-based weaponry and satellites, among other initiatives.
Many retired military officials say that’s the right first step, as it would allow Mr. Trump and Mr. Pence to achieve the political and policy goal of a force to pursue U.S. space dominance while not completely upending the military bureaucracy or standing up a Space Force branch prematurely.
“This scratches the president’s itch,” said retired Air Force Lt. Gen. David Deptula, now the dean of the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies. “It meets his intent on ensuring war-fighting dominance in space … and it does it without significant risk to everything that’s been done to get us to where we are today.”
The heart of the matter, Gen. Deptula and many other observers argue, is whether a separate Space Force would actually lead to anything tangible. Critics say the U.S. military already is at the cutting edge of what it can do in space, and that while a unified command could help centralize space-related efforts from across the Defense Department, a new branch is totally unnecessary.
“What is it we’re trying to fix?” Gen. Deptula said. “We are the world’s preeminent space force today. We are the world’s preeminent space power today. And we got here with a lot of hard work and effort and dedication by many men and women in the Department of Defense, principally the U.S. Air Force. What is it that’s broken?”