It was Donald Trump’s baby, but it’s Joe Biden’s charge now.
The creation of the U.S. Space Force, America’s newest military service, became fodder for late-night TV hosts and political cartoonists when it came to life with Mr. Trump’s signing of the $738 billion defense bill in December 2019. Online critics mocked the logo design as a rip-off of Star Trek, made fun of the “Guardians” nickname for members of the force and questioned where it would fit in the Pentagon’s long-established service hierarchy.
But Mr. Trump saw U.S. Space Force as one of the signature accomplishments of his administration, giving it pride of place in virtually every campaign speech and rally.
The Space Force was the first line of the last public address Mr. Trump gave as president, when he told his departure ceremony at Joint Base Andrews on Wednesday that “we created a new force called Space Force. That in itself would be a major achievement for a regular administration, [but] we were not a regular administration.”
It is also one part of Mr. Trump’s presidential legacy that his successor appears ready to build upon.
The U.S. Space Force is intended to be a centralized, unified command that is responsible for overseeing U.S. military operations in space. The satellites that will fall under the service handle operations of global positioning systems, detection of enemy missile launches and more.
Mr. Trump called space “the world’s newest war-fighting domain” during the signing ceremony in December 2019 that officially created the first separate branch of the military since the 1940s.
“Amid grave threats to our national security, American superiority in space is absolutely vital,” he said. “We’re leading, but we’re not leading by enough, and very shortly we’ll be leading by a lot.”
In November, Mr. Trump included the Space Force in his Thanksgiving telephone call to members of the armed forces.
“You are pioneers in the newest branch of the armed forces. You keep watch around the world to detect missile launches, space launches and nuclear detonations while providing critical intelligence,” he said.
The Space Force is likely to last in part because the idea was not solely Mr. Trump’s.
A fair amount of bureaucratic momentum already had been built behind the Space Force.
Some 2,200 members of the Air Force Space Command formally shifted to the new command last year, and another 3,600 plan to transfer this year. All told, according to projections, the Space Force will have 6,000 uniformed military personnel and 8,000 civilian employees, SpaceNews recently reported.
“I don’t think the Space Force is in any danger of going away, but I don’t think it will be politically favored the way it was under Trump,” David Burbach, associate professor of national security affairs at the U.S. Naval War College, told the publication.
Military analysts note that China, India and Russia are rapidly expanding their own ambitions in space. Russia has even created a space force within its traditional air forces.
Also helping the Space Force’s cause is that the idea of a separate military service focused exclusively on space had bipartisan backing before Mr. Trump took up the campaign.
The idea had been kicked around for years in Washington and most recently championed on Capitol Hill by Rep. Jim Cooper, Tennessee Democrat, and Rep. Mike Rogers, a Michigan Republican who is no longer in Congress.
“This is not a Trump idea. He tried to hijack it long after the House Armed Services Committee voted 60-1 to establish a Space Corps,” Mr. Cooper told SpaceNews. “Trump’s blatant support of a Space Force does not make it a Republican idea.”
Mr. Biden did not make the Space Force a centerpiece of his defense policy on the campaign trail, even as he promised to roll back other Trump administration security initiatives.
At his confirmation hearing Tuesday before the Senate Armed Services Committee, retired Army Gen. Lloyd Austin, Mr. Biden’s pick to lead the Department of Defense, made only a passing reference to “space-based platforms” on battlefields of the future, along with artificial intelligence and connected military units.
“These kinds of things, I think, can give us the types of capabilities that we’ll need,” he said.
“I believe that we still have the qualitative edge and the competitive edge over China. I think that gap has closed significantly.”
Although Mr. Biden is expected to issue executive orders to rein in as much of the Trump-era activity as possible, canceling the Space Force — whatever his objections may be — is another story.
Congress established the Space Force through the annual National Defense Authorization Act, so it would take another act of Congress to abolish it. Returning units to the Air Force that had just transferred to the Space Force would not be easy.
Refining the mission
Some defense analysts say Mr. Biden has an opportunity not to eliminate the Space Force but to reorient it away from the more militaristic vision espoused by Mr. Trump. The force, in their mind, would not be used to “win” wars in outer space but to establish an order and ease fears of allies and adversaries that the U.S. is seeking to dominate a crucial new theater of war by targeting enemy satellites and communications networks.
“The best way for the Biden administration to prevent [a space war] is to treat orbit as a commons, and the Space Force as a kind of traffic control agent,” defense analyst Kelly D. Atherton recently wrote on Slate.com. “The more other countries feel they can safely keep satellites in use, the less likely they are to plan a ‘scorched orbit’ approach to a future conflict.”
Vikram Mittal, an engineering professor at West Point, predicts that Mr. Biden will either refine the Space Force mission or pare back its bureaucratic independence, but he said the new president is unlikely to cancel the program altogether.
“What might have been the punch line of many jokes is actually a much needed and relevant organization,” he wrote in Forbes.com this month.
“The last century of warfare was decided primarily by air supremacy,” he said. “The next century of warfare will likely be decided by space supremacy.”