President Donald Trump today authorized the Pentagon to set up the U.S. Space Command as its own combatant command, in preparation for creating a Space Force as a separate branch of the military.
The authorization for the Space Command came in the form of a memorandum that doesn’t require congressional approval. Creating the Space Force, however, is dependent on action in Congress — and with Democrats taking charge of the House, there’s a chance that the force may take a form different from what the White House originally envisioned.
Cost estimates for setting up a Space Force as the first branch of the military to be created since the Air Force’s birth in 1947 range from a few billion dollars to as much as $13 billion. Some policymakers favor less expensive alternatives — such as a Space Corps that would be created within Air Force, just as the Marine Corps was created under the Navy’s administrative aegis.
Among those policymakers is U.S. Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., who’s due to take over the chairmanship of the House Armed Services Committee. “We will have a conversation within our committee about the best way to place a greater emphasis on space,” he told reporters last week.
The Space Command should help raise the profile of military space operations. During a visit to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, Vice President Mike Pence said the command will “oversee all our military activities in space” across all service branches.
He noted that nations including China and Russia are trying to assert dominance in space by developing electronic satellite jamming weapons and anti-satellite weapons. “Frankly, these new challenges demand new and innovative responses,” Pence said.
Pence said the Air Force’s GPS III satellites serve as an example. The next-generation spacecraft are designed to be eight times more resistant to jamming efforts.
The vice president visited Florida today in hopes of watching the liftoff of the first GPS III satellite, but SpaceX scrubbed the launch in the countdown’s final minutes due to anomalous readings from sensors on the Falcon 9 rocket’s first stage. The next launch attempt is scheduled for Wednesday.
“The most important thing is that we get that rocket up safely and securely, and we achieve that mission,” Pence said. “I know this bird is going to fly, and when it flies, it’s going to make a difference for the security and prosperity of the American people.”
The Space Command previously existed as a combatant command from 1985 to 2002, but it was folded into the U.S. Strategic Command when the Northern Command was created — due to what was then a requirement to have no more than 10 unified combatant commands.
That requirement has now been lifted, and Pence said “this Space Command will be the 11th combatant command in the U.S. military.” It will take in 18,000 military and civilian personnel working in space operations, and will be headed by a four-star general who is yet to be named.
Pence said the White House will proceed with plans for the Space Force, in cooperation with congressional leaders. “In the days ahead, President Trump will also sign a new space policy directive that will lay out our plans and our timeline to create the new sixth branch of the armed forces, the U.S. Space Force,” he said.
The White House still plans to have the Space Force in place by the end of 2020, which happens to be the next presidential election year.