In statements given before a group of Marines and journalists at Marine Corps Air Station Miramar, in San Diego, last week, President Trump announced that he believed the nation may need to establish a space-specific branch of the military in order to best defend America’s assets in orbit. While the concept has been brought up by lawmakers before, the President’s newfound fervor for a space branch came as a particular surprise, as it contradicts the positions of senior defense officials within his cabinet, including Secretary of Defense James Mattis.
Given the president’s tenacity for making off the cuff remarks, some wondered just how serious Donald Trump really was about the establishment of the science fiction sounding, “Space Force,” but new statements from senior defense officials seem to indicate that the president has every intention of following through the concept.
“He is very interested in ensuring that the department is best organized and equipped to achieve our vital missions in space,” Kenneth Rapuano, assistant secretary of defense for homeland defense and global security, told the House Armed Services subcommittee on strategic forces on Thursday.
His testimony, which was given in the company of Gen. John ‘Jay’ Raymond, commander of Air Force Space Command, and Betty Sapp, director of the National Reconnaissance Office, was well received by a number of lawmakers who had, themselves, championed the establishment of a “Space Corps” in their 2018 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) or, what is effectively Congress’s military budget proposal. While the Space Corps, along with the rest of the NDAA did pass a vote in Congress, the Space Corps was ultimately done away with when the Congress and Senate budget proposals were reconciled into one complete bill.
“I am so excited to have the support of President Trump as we work towards this goal and look forward to making it a reality in the near future,” said Subcommittee Chairman Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Ala.). He was among the bipartisan committee that first pushed for the establishment of a space-specific branch.
Proponents of a “Space Force” believe that the Air Force has not devoted the necessary emphasis to defending American orbital assets, believing space to be a burgeoning combat theater that America is already on the cusp of falling dangerously behind its competitors in terms of operationalizing. Both Russia and China stood up space-specific branches of their own military forces in 2015, while the Air Force’s Space Command has had very little overall authority from which to compete for funding, when compared to ongoing combat operations the Air Force had had to maintain for nearly two decades now in multiple theaters around the globe. By establishing a branch devoted strictly to space, some believe the branch would have even footing from which to compete for the funds and resources they need to effectively defend America’s orbital autonomy.
Critics of the idea, however, raise important points about the administrative and logistical overhead associated with standing up an entirely new branch of the military. In effect, the pool of money will remain the same, but a new branch would represent a significant increase in the financial burden associated with space-operations. A new branch would not only mean service members devoting their careers to space-defense, but would also require support infrastructure, including everything from payroll clerks to the waste management services, to function. By keeping orbital operations under the Air Force umbrella, those expenses can be avoided, allowing the funds to be allocated toward more pressing endeavors. This has been the premise behind both Defense Secretary James Mattis and Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson’s criticisms of the space branch concept.
However, as Representative Rogers pointed out last year, the Air Force can’t be relied on to devote the necessary funding and effort to space while their focus is on combat operations in the Middle East and elsewhere.
“They use space as a pay for,” Rogers told CNN. “And if we segregate the space professionals away from the air dominance professionals, that money pot goes with the space professionals. That’s what this all boils down to.” Since then, Rogers has approved of the Air Force’s efforts to launch a new constellation of hardened GPS satellites, and an organizational restructuring that has given Space Command increased authority and autonomy.
However, I still have concerns about the Air Force’s ability to move quickly and get the space segment, ground segment, and terminals all delivered on time and on schedule. I also remain concerned about the prioritization of space programs across the DoD and within the Air Force,” he said on Thursday, drawing particular attention to the number of orbital operations the Air Force has placed on their “unfunded list.”
“That’s really my biggest frustration. We’ve heard Air Force leaders talk about the increasing threats we face in space and declare that space is a priority mission. Yet, when the rubber meets the road, we see space programs given a backseat behind other Air Force programs. I didn’t see a lot of air dominance programs on that unfunded list.”
Although the President has voiced support for the idea of a space-specific branch, his position has not yet been finalized, according to Rapuano. The president expressed that he could back any option that adequately addresses the looming threat above our heads, meaning it doesn’t have to be a new branch, necessarily.
“The president is very focused on outcomes,” he said. “He has prioritized space. He recognized the threats that have evolved, and the pace at which they evolve. He’s very interested in exploring any options that can provide enhanced capabilities.”
Image courtesy of the U.S. Army