Space Force Takes Flight

On February 19, President Donald J. Trump signed an order directing the Pentagon to develop plans to establish a U.S. Space Force, with its mandate to “marshal its space resources to deter and counter threats in space.”

The president’s order follows his announcement, in June 2018, that he would order the creation of a “separate but equal” military branch devoted to military operations in space. It would have been the first new military branch since the creation of the U.S. Air Force in 1947, calved off from the U.S. Army. But, even though the call was popular among voters who attended the president’s rallies and other appearances during the 2018 midterm elections, the proposal met with significant resistance in Congress and within the Pentagon itself, arguing that the military did not need another top-heavy bureaucracy to do work that was already in the purview of existing military commands. One such opponent was former Secretary of Defense James Mattis, who resigned his position on December 20, 2018.

As a result, the U.S. Space Force will be created as a division of the U.S. Air Force, just as the U.S. Marine Corps falls organizationally within the U.S. Navy. Its initial funding will probably be channeled through the Strategic Air Command, the Air Force division that now oversees most space-related military interests. Although creation of the Space Force requires congressional approval, it does not require a Senate-confirmed civilian secretary, but instead can be administered by a military undersecretary—though subject, again, to Senate approval. Early readings of that body suggest that the Senate will approve the order and that undersecretary, though the House may be less kindly disposed.

The undersecretary would also hold a seat on the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and critics such as the Union of Concerned Scientists have voiced concern that dedicating a military branch to space would necessarily militarize space, which, in theory at least, is supposed to be a site of international, peaceful cooperation. Yet, given current realities, some proponents of increased military operations in space argue that the United States is a step behind Russia and China, which reportedly have developed and are now building antisatellite weapons that would disrupt communications and bring down navigational systems such as GPS. Without naming those nations directly, the president’s directive states that “potential adversaries are now advancing their space capabilities and actively developing ways to deny our use of space in a crisis or conflict.”

The directive concludes by requiring the Secretary of Defense to conduct regular reviews to determine if and when the time is right to calve off the Space Force from the Air Force to become that “separate but equal branch” for which the president had expressed hope early on. As it is, staffing will probably come largely from the Air Force, along with relevant civilian agencies, with new staffers and contractors hired over a phasing-in schedule that is expected to last for the next several years.

Initial funding for the Space Force is currently set at $270 million in FY 2020, with an estimated 600 headquarters staff members, a count that is projected to grow to about 1,000 within a year or two. The headquarters has yet to be determined, but new facilities will probably be located in an existing post. (So far, the betting is heavy on Colorado Springs, though Florida has been lobbying extensively.) The Pentagon has said that it expects the budget to grow as the duties and mission of the Space Force are more clearly articulated, and Acting Secretary of Defense James Shanahan, a former Boeing executive, has directed Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson to develop a structural plan for the Space Force.

Late last year, Wilson anticipated all this by proposing a Space Force that would incorporate the National Reconnaissance Office and elements of the Air Force’s existing Space Command, with early reports that the estimated budget would hover around $13 billion. With the current plan for organization under the wings of the Air Force, those costs are expected to fall dramatically. Secretary Shananan has expressed a commitment to a lean organization, though other service branches have suggested transferring their space-related departments to the Space Force, at a total annual cost of $10 to $12 billion between 2021 and 2024.

The details, then, are emerging. For the moment, some Pentagon-watchers predict that at least some of the money for the Space Force will be diverted from funds currently allocated for the Army and Navy. If that’s so, expect turf—or space—wars to come.