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National Space Council meeting
Deputy Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan and Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao flank Vice President Mike Pence during a meeting of the National Space Council at the National Defense University in Washington, D.C. (C-SPAN Video)

The National Space Council today pushed forward recommendations to raise the profile of military space activities, at first through a combined U.S. Space Command and eventually through a separate Space Force.

Vice President Mike Pence, the council’s chairman, argued that more military resources will have to be directed toward space, in part due to challenges from China and Russia.

“Today, space is fundamentally different than it was a generation ago,” he said. “What was once desolate and uncontested is increasingly crowded and confrontational. And today, other nations are seeking to disrupt our space-based systems and undermine our economic and military might as never before.”

Pence highlighted potential ranging from threats from anti-satellite weapons and airborne laser systems to on-orbit satellite interference and hypersonic weapons.

At a forum presented by The Washington Post just before today’s council meeting, Pence underscored the Trump administration’s view that preserving U.S. assets in space “will require a military presence.”

During his Q&A with Post reporter Robert Costa, Pence noted that space nuclear weapons are banned under the terms of the 1967 Outer Space Treaty. But he wasn’t willing to say whether that ban would always be observed.

The question took on added significance because it came just days after President Donald Trump announced that the U.S. would pull out of the decades-old Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty with Russia.

“I think that what we need to do is make sure that we provide for the common defense of the people of the United States of America, and that’s the president’s determination here,” Pence said. “I think it’s in the interest of every nation to continue to ban the use of nuclear weapons in space, but what we want to do is continue to advance the principle that peace comes through strength.”

The Trump administration’s revival of the National Space Council has been a key part of its drive to beef up space security. The council unanimously approved six recommendations to the president during today’s meeting at the National Defense University in Washington, D.C. Those recommendations include:

  • Forming a combined U.S. Space Command to oversee military space operations. The U.S. Air Force already has a Space Command, but the newly formed command would take in activities across all military branches, following a model similar to that used for the Special Operations Command or the Cyber Command.
  • Making preparations to establish the Space Force as a separate branch of the military.
  • Calling on Congress to authorize the formal establishment of the Space Force and approve funding for the Space Command. Pence said the White House wants the go-ahead for the Space Force to be included in the National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal year 2020.
  • Launching a review of existing space operational authorities, conducted jointly by the National Space Council and the National Security Council.
  • Creating a Space Development Agency to enhance warfighting capabilities in space. Space-related military development projects, such as the Boeing-built Phantom Express space plane, currently fall under the purview of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA.
  • Creating collaborative mechanisms with the U.S. intelligence community to improve coordination of space capabilities and operations.

Trump is likely to put the recommendations into a future space directive, and the details are likely to be worked out over the months ahead during discussions involving the Pentagon and Congress.

Some officials have raised questions about the potential cost and bureaucratic overhead associated with creating a new branch of the military, as opposed to raising the profile of space activities within the Air Force.

Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson has estimated the cost of creating a separate Space Force at $13 billion or more, spread over five years.

At today’s Washington Post “Transformers” forum, U.S. Rep. Don Beyer, D-Va., acknowledged that congressional Democrats were initially skeptical about the Space Force idea.

“I think most people are taking, at least on the Democratic side, a wait-and-see attitude, recognizing that Russia and China are doing lots of things in space, lots of things we don’t know about,” Beyer said.

Beyer, a member of the House Space Subcommittee, said the White House should proceed with caution. “We don’t want to accelerate the militarization of space at all, but we also don’t want other people to do that while we’re sitting helpless,” he said.

Pence brushed aside concerns about the cost of creating the Space Force. “I would just ask my old colleagues in the Congress, ‘What price freedom?’ ” he said at the Post forum. “What is the price tag that you place on the security of the United States of America?”

The vice president received a vote of support from NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine. During the council meeting, Bridenstine said the Space Force will be critical for preserving “commercial and government capabilities for science, discovery, exploration and of course the betterment of humankind through commercial space activities.”

“This $383 billion industry that is in space is going to need security,” Bridenstine said. “The enemies of our country have identified space as the American Achilles’ heel. We’ve got to make sure that they understand that they will receive no advantage from attempting to deny access to space for anybody in the world.”

On other topics:

  • Bridenstine said that investigators have a “really good idea what happened” on Oct. 11 when a Soyuz launch to the International Space Station had to be aborted, and that the next crewed Soyuz launch is expected to go ahead in December. Reports from Russia suggest that one of the Soyuz rocket’s four strap-on boosters didn’t separate properly during the ascent and damaged the core stage, forcing the abort.
  • During the Post forum, Bridenstine talked up NASA’s plans to build a moon-orbiting outpost known as the Gateway. Today NASA issued a request for information about potential Gateway cargo delivery services. Bridenstine said the Gateway would have an open hardware architecture that other countries and commercial users could build into a wide variety of reusable space vehicles. “The second Gateway would be a deep-space transport, and that’s our path to Mars,” Bridenstine said.
  • The Commerce Department’s acting deputy secretary, Karen Dunn Kelley, told the council that a draft rule was submitted to the Office of Management and Budget on Monday, with the aim of easing restrictions on cameras in space. High-school satellite experiments “would probably not go through the same review process as a highly advanced sensing satellite,” she said, and SpaceX’s rocket-cams would “not be treated the same way as a highly technical camera that can see your shoelaces from space.” Existing restrictions stirred up a fuss when SpaceX had to turn off its rocket-cam during a satellite launch in March.
  • At the Post forum, Virgin Galactic CEO George Whitesides was asked whether his company would start offering suborbital space trips at Spaceport America in New Mexico next year. “We’re getting real close to that,” Whitesides said. He laid out a vision for point-to-point trips between international spaceports, but said it was important to reform export regulations and restore the U.S. Export-Import Bank’s full lending authority. “There are deals that I have right now that could be done if the bank could actually do deals above $10 million,” he said. “It is really hurting American aerospace to not have the bank at full strength.”
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