Trump Continues to Talk Up Space Force As He Signs FY2019 NDAA

Trump Continues to Talk Up Space Force As He Signs FY2019 NDAA

In a ceremony at Fort Drum, NY, today, President Donald Trump signed into the law the FY2019 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA).  Coming just four days after Vice President Mike Pence laid out the Administration’s goal to create a Department of the Space Force in next year’s NDAA, the President used a portion of his remarks to reiterate the threats he sees as necessitating that action.

President Trump makes remarks at signing of FY2019 National Defense Authorization Act, Fort Drum, NY, August 13, 2018. Screengrab.

Citing “foreign competitors and adversaries,” specifically China, as “already having begun weaponizing space,” Trump asserted that it “is not enough to merely have an American presence in space. We must have American dominance in space.”

The John S. McCain National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2019, H.R. 5515, does not call for creating a Space Force, but includes steps that could be characterized as leading in that direction.  They include:

  • Establishing a U.S. Space Command as a subunit of U.S. Strategic Command (USSTRATCOM)
  • Developing a plan to establish a separate alternative process for space-related acquisitions
  • Developing a plan to improve the quality of the space cadre within the Air Force
  • Developing a space warfighting policy and plan that identifies joint mission-essential tasks for space as a warfighting domain

On Thursday, Pence went further.  He and Trump want a U.S. Space Command that is a separate unified combatant command rather than a subunit of USSTRATCOM.  They also want to establish a sixth military department, a U.S. Department of the Space Force “separate but equal” from the Air Force, which currently executes most national security space programs.  Pence acknowledged that the White House cannot take that step alone. Congress would have to authorize and fund a new Department. Pence said the Administration’s FY2020 budget request will formally make that proposal, including an estimate of the cost.  That request should be submitted to Congress in February 2019.

The fate of such a proposal is far from clear.  The House-passed FY2018 NDAA called for creating a Space Corps as part of the Air Force, not a new department.  The Senate, as well as the Pentagon and the White House at the time, rejected it.  The topic was not addressed in the FY2019 NDAA that Trump signed today as Congress awaited a report on options from Deputy Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan that was required by the FY2018 NDAA.  Pence’s speech on Thursday coincided with public release of the Shanahan report.

The House and Senate were in recess on Thursday and few official comments have been released by key Senators or Representatives.  However, the top Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC), Sen. Jack Reed (D-Rhode Island), said on Fox News yesterday that he does not think a new military department is the answer.  “I think we have to reorganize our space forces because our threats are now in multiple dimensions, but I think creating a separate service with all the structure and bureaucracy is not the way to go.”  He believes what is already in the FY2019 NDAA — a U.S. Space Command as a subunit of USSTRATCOM — is the best approach to pulling all the services together, while “creating a separate service would just add bureaucracy without effect.”

Reed’s counterpart on the House Armed Services Committee (HASC), Rep. Adam Smith (D- Washington) issued a statement on Friday criticizing Trump for politicizing  the issue through his 2020 campaign.  “It is extremely inappropriate for President Trump to politicize the U.S. military by having his campaign ask supporters to choose a logo for a proposed branch of the armed forces.  Mixing organizational decisions about national security with private political efforts should not occur.” As for the overall idea of a new military department for space, Smith noted that HASC has been “working to increase the U.S. military focus on space for many years” including the Space Corps provision in the House-passed FY2018 NDAA.  “If and when President Trump provides a comprehensive legislative proposal … Congress will review it, and we will continue working in Congress to develop a solution that we assess will best protect the United States.”

As noted, last year HASC wanted to create a Space Corps within the Air Force, a lesser step than a new department.  It was included in the House-passed FY2018 NDAA, but was controversial.  The chair and ranking member of the Strategic Forces subcommittee, Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Alabama) and Rep. Jim Cooper (D- Tennessee), and full committee chair Mac Thornberry (R-Texas), were advocates, but Rep. Mike Turner (R-Ohio), a former chair of the Strategic Forces subcommittee and currently chair of another HASC subcommittee, strongly opposed it.  His attempt to bring an amendment to the floor to remove the provision from the bill was rejected by the House Rules Committee.

SASC did not support the House’s attempt to create a Space Corps, let alone a Space Force.  Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Oklahoma), the second-highest Republican on the committee told the Washington Examiner in June that this is one of the “rare cases” where he disagrees with Trump. “We don’t need one more huge bureaucracy.”  Inhofe has been playing a larger role in committee leadership while its chair, Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona), battles brain cancer.  McCain is not known as a supporter of the idea either.

One key person in the debate who has come around to Trump’s viewpoint is Secretary of Defense James Mattis.  Last year he sent a letter to Congress strongly opposing the Space Corps idea.  At the time, he and other Pentagon officials said it was antithetical to their efforts to cut overhead costs and to integrate, rather than segregate, the military services for joint warfighting in all domains (land, sea, air, space and cyber).

Yesterday, however, he backtracked, telling the Associated Press while  airborne enroute to Brazil that “I was not against setting up a Space Force, what I was against was rushing to do that before we could find those problems. We have had to do a lot of work defining the problem….”  Also, last week just before Pence’s speech, he came out strongly in support of creating a unified combatant command for space.

Where all of this leads depends on many factors, including the cost.  No estimate was included in the Shanahan report, but Shanahan told reporters after Pence’s speech that “Well, I assume it’s billions” of dollars.  Where that money would come from is a significant challenge.

Another variable is the outcome of the mid-term elections and whether control of either the House or Senate changes hands and/or there is new leadership on HASC, SASC and the defense appropriations subcommittees.

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