Space Jam: Trump Fuels Debate Over A Separate Space Force

Voyager 2 spacecraft. (Photo: NASA)

President Trump’s comment recently that it might be a “great idea” to have a “Space Force” may have seemed like an off-hand comment at the time, but it fanned the embers of what has been an ongoing and contentious debate between Congress and the Pentagon over whether a separate military force to operate in space like the Army on land, the Navy at sea, or the Air Force in the air is needed or would even be beneficial.

Speaking at Miramar Air Station in San Diego, Calif. on March 13, Trump even said he first mentioned a space force as a joke. “Then I said, ‘What a great idea, maybe we’ll have to do that.’” White House officials threw another log on the fire two days later at a hearing before House Armed Services Committee’s Strategic Forces Subcommittee on the administration’s 2019 budget plans for national security space programs. Kenneth Rapuano, assistant secretary of defense for Homeland Defense and Global Security, told lawmakers that the Department of Defense (DoD) is studying the military’s space operations, and that Trump is “very interested in exploring any options that can provide enhanced capabilities.”

Whether by the name space force or space corps, the matter has been a point of contention for several years. In one corner are members of Congress, led by Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Ala., chairman of the subcommittee, who say a separate space force is necessary. In the other is the Pentagon, which has ardently opposed the idea as premature.

The House last year included a provision in the fiscal 2018 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for the creation of a “Space Corps.” The plan was shelved after it didn’t get enough votes in the Senate, but the NDAA did order the DoD to study the issue, laying the groundwork for it to come up again. Deputy Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan is in charge of reviewing how space forces could be reorganized.

Rogers has contended that countries such as China and Russia are close to surpassing the United States in space-based capabilities, and that a dedicated space force is necessary to keep from falling behind. The Pentagon objects to creating a separate force because it could overcomplicate already complex missions, and it is more focused right now on integrating, rather than separating, its space component.

Everyone agrees that space is essential to future operations, and that it is a contested domain. The military and commercial sectors rely on satellites for communications, surveillance, positioning, and a host of other functions. Those satellites and the services they provide are subject to interference from the likes of Russia and China, which have satellite constellations of their own. Russia, for example, is focused on the significant strategic advantages of space operations, and China has created a Strategic Support Force to coordinate space, cyber, and electronic warfare operations. China also has demonstrated its ability to shoot down satellites as part of its counterspace capabilities.

The Pentagon, however, notes that forces in all of its domains rely on space-based communications and services, and has pushed instead for better integration of operations on ground, water, air, cyberspace, and space as well as with the electromagnetic spectrum, which some argue should also be an official domain of warfare. “Now is not the time to build seams and segregate or separate,” Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein said last year. “Now’s the time to further integrate.”

The Air Force has launched an initiative to develop a Multi-Domain Command and Control (MDC2) system to better fuse operations in those domains. The Pentagon’s research arm, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, also is working to support multi-domain operations with a program called Hallmark.  This program is looking to improve communications and situational awareness in space, which is at once vast and cluttered with thousands of satellites, other craft, and space junk.

But the question of a separate space force, which has bipartisan support in Congress, won’t go away. During his subcommittee’s hearing, Rogers cited Trump’s comment, saying, “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.”

And while the 2018 NDAA denied the creation of a space corps, its directive to study the issue left it on the table. “This issue is not dead at all,” Todd Harrison, defense budget analyst and director of the Aerospace Security Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told The Hill. “I think [a separate space corps] is inevitable, as in, within my lifetime.”

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