WASHINGTON — On June 18, President Donald Trump ordered the Pentagon to begin establishing a new “Space Force,” a process that could add a sixth military service to the Defense Department.
But military service branches aren’t built overnight, and the department immediately went to work figuring out exactly how to stand up a space force.
“We understand the President’s guidance,” said Pentagon spokeswoman Dana White later that day. “Our policy board will begin working on this issue, which has implications for intelligence operations for the Air Force, Army, Marines and Navy. Working with Congress, this will be a deliberate process with a great deal of input from multiple stakeholders.”
Many questions have yet to be answered, including whether Trump can secure needed congressional support for the plan, the timeline to stand up a space force and whether it will fall under the Department of the Air Force or warrant the establishment of its own department and budget.
“This is a very big bureaucratic shift, lots of complex moving parts, lots of budget implications, doctrine implications, command relationship implications, funding implications, legal implications, all of those have to be worked out,” said Brian Weeden, director of program planning for space policy thinktank Secure World Foundation and a former Air Force officer working in space situational awareness.
The first of those hurdles is Congress. Although Trump’s directive propels the issue forward, reversing the Defense Department’s long-held opposition to a separate space force, only Congress can amend Title 10 of the United States Code to create a new military service.
And some lawmakers — including several powerful members on the defense committees — have already indicated that they could throw up barriers to the execution of Trump’s order.
“Establishing a service branch requires congressional action,” said Rep. Mike Turner, an Ohio Republican who chairs the House Armed Services tactical air and land subcommittee and one of the biggest opponents to the space force idea. “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.
“The congressionally mandated report evaluating a Space Force to answer those questions is due in August,” Turner added. “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.”
Even if Congress can be persuaded to create a space force, Weeden warned that the process will take years — especially as both the House and Senate have already passed their versions of the defense policy bill for fiscal year 2019.
“You’re talking about FY20 being the first time that actually happens, and there’s not a whole lot the military can do until changes in the authorization [bill] and to Title 10,” he said, adding that the issue could be even further complicated, delayed or dropped altogether if Democrats win the House this fall or if Trump loses the election in 2020.
Todd Harrison, director of the aerospace security project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, agreed that FY2020’s defense policy bill would likely be the starting point for legislative changes.
“It’s not a given that Congress will pass this, and it will be up to Congress to work out all of the details,” he said.
“Then you start the implementation process, and it will probably take at least two or three years to actually stand up the new service.”
So you want to build a space corps?
But once Congress makes the legal changes necessary to stand up a space force, the effort won’t get any easier.
Trump’s comments referred to a “space force” that would be “separate but equal” to the Air Force — leading experts to believe he favors standing up a completely independent service like the Army, Navy or Air Force rather than something in line with House lawmakers’ “space corps” proposal — a space service that would still fall under the Department of the Air Force but would have its own uniform, budget and chain of command.
And experts said a purely independent space force could potentially entail big increases to the space budget and military space personnel.
“I think it’s going to be more bureaucracy, and I think people are going to thrash about for years trying to pull this thing together,” said former Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James. “And that thrashing will take away from focusing on these other problems.”
James said that the military has already added billions of dollars to the space enterprise over the last few years. If more money is needed, she said, Congress should appropriate more — but a new space force wouldn’t solve it.
Space currently makes up a very small portion of the military services’ budget and operations.
The Air Force is responsible for the preponderance of military space activity, but Air Force Space Command is comprised of only 38,000 people and the service’s unclassified space budget averages about $10 billion per year. The Navy also manages some space programs through Space and Naval Warfare Systems Command, while the Army has some space functions in its Space and Missile Defense Command.
But Weeden warned that it’s possible that as space operators are pulled into a single service, the existing services could also try to keep their own organic space capabilities in much the way that the Army, Marine Corps and Navy continued buying and flying their own aircraft even after the Air Force was stood up.
Space force leaders could also push for greater spending on space, expanding the defense budget or taking away funding for other priorities.
“I think it would mean a lot more people and budget, and so far that’s not in any proposals anywhere,” Weeden said. “And if you’re talking about adding tens of thousands of more, well that has budget implications, that has recruiting implications, it’s going to take a while to do that. It’s not something that happens overnight, and it’s not something that’s in the budget [plans].”
However, Harrison noted that the department could simply realign its existing people, organizations and infrastructure into one single chain of command. That would keep the budget roughly the same, with some adjustments to overhead expenses.
“Or you could choose to gold-plate it,” he said. “If you want to make it expensive, you could create a brand new service academy, you could create all sorts of new bases around the country.”
Weeden opposes formulating a separate service for space in part because he believes it won’t necessarily solve one of the key problems facing defense space operations: a sluggish, bureaucratic acquisition process.
“Why not just solve the problem with what we have right now?” he said. “I have my own frustrations. It’s been seven, eight years since they [the Air Force] have had this direction to focus on resilience and we haven’t really seen them do anything. But in the last six months there have been signs that they’re finally taking it seriously and making changes.”
James also agreed with criticisms that the acquisition process is too slow, particularly when it comes to space. Some steps have been taken to address that, particularly at the Space and Missile Systems Center at Air Force Space Command, and other transaction authorities are being used for space contracting.
“Do you want to know more?”
Another challenge for a future space force comes down to culture. When Trump’s announcement hit, users on Twitter joked that the military would finally settle the question of whether a space warfighting force would reflect an army or navy-style rank structure.
However, such matters will need to be spelled out and could become controversial, especially if airmen, sailors, Marines and soldiers find themselves shuffled into a new service they had never planned to join.
“How do you create a unified cadre of personnel in the space force, and what are the unique characteristics of people that you want in that cadre? Because it doesn’t need to necessarily model what the other services do in terms of the rank structure, in terms of career progression, in terms of the skills. I would go into this with a clean sheet of paper,” said Harrison, who added that space forces could be required to have more math and science training.
“You need to make it distinct, culturally, from all of the other services,” he continued. “Part of that is through training that you start sending people through the same common induction training, whether it’s bootcamp or field training or whatever…and you start to build that ethos. ’This is who we are. We’re space operators. That’s what we do.”
Weeden said one model worth considering is U.S. Special Operations Command, which pulls in troops from all of the different services who operate under their own unique command structure, with different acquisition rules, doctrine and culture than conventional forces.
Stephen Losey and Joe Gould contributed to this report.
Valerie Insinna is Defense News' air warfare reporter. She previously worked the Navy/congressional beats for Defense Daily, which followed almost three years as a staff writer for National Defense Magazine. Prior to that, she worked as an editorial assistant for the Tokyo Shimbun’s Washington bureau.