Trump Signs on to Space Force as Part of Air Force, Now Up To Congress

Trump Signs on to Space Force as Part of Air Force, Now Up To Congress

President Trump signed Space Policy Directive-4 (SPD-4) today formalizing his intent to ask Congress to agree to create a Space Force as part of the Air Force.  He backed away from his initial demand that a Department of the Space Force be established as a “separate but equal” military department, but that remains a longer term goal.  For now he is asking only for the Air Force to be reorganized to better manage and execute space activities, a proposal that originated in Congress and is more likely to win congressional approval.  Senior Administration Officials also said the Space Force budget will be “lean,” which may also appeal to Congress.  The details will be critical to the proposal’s fate.

Trump held a brief signing ceremony this afternoon at the White House surrounded by Administration officials who played critical roles in developing the plan to date.  They include Acting Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan, who, as Deputy Secretary of Defense, was directed by Congress in the FY2018 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) to review the organizational structure of the national security space enterprise and make recommendations on how to improve it.

That stemmed from House-passed language, which was rejected by the Senate, to create a Space Corps within the Air Force analogous to the Marine Corps within the Department of the Navy.  At about the same time, Trump began championing a Space Force as a separate military department, but that idea met with resistance in Congress because of the expected cost and disruption it would entail.

SPD-4 is much closer to the House proposal than Trump’s preference, which may make its enactment more likely although the debate will not begin in earnest until the legislative proposal is presented.

Although many media reports are characterizing SPD-4 as creating a Space Force, in fact it only directs the Secretary of Defense to present the President with a proposal he can submit to Congress.

Trump gave few specifics during the signing ceremony, where he also talked about several unrelated issues.  His Space Force comments begin at about 2:20 in this video.

Vice President Mike Pence, who chairs the White House National Space Council, was among the officials attending.  He, Shanahan, John Bolton (National Security Adviser to the President), and Gen. Paul Selva (Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff) also made remarks.  Other officials attending included Heather Wilson, Secretary of the Air Force; Sue Gordon, Principal Deputy Director of National Intelligence; Lisa Porter, Deputy Under Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering; Russ Vought, Acting Director of the Office of Management and  Budget; and Scott Pace, Executive Secretary of the National Space Council.

As explained by Senior Administration Officials during a media telecon this morning prior to the signing ceremony, the text of SPD-4 basically requires the following, as reported yesterday by

  • Establish a Space Force as a sixth military department of the Armed Forces within the U.S. Air Force as a first step toward a future, separate military department.
  • Establish a Chief of Staff of the Space Force within the Air Force who will be a member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
  • Create a civilian Under Secretary of the Air Force for Space to be appointed by the President with the advice and consent of the Senate.
  • Consolidate existing forces and authorities for military space activities in order to minimize duplication of effort and eliminate bureaucratic inefficiencies.
  • Include military and civilian personnel conducting and directly supporting space operations from all military departments and DOD Armed Forces; assume responsibilities for all major military space acquisition programs; and create appropriate career tracks across all relevant specialties.
  • Exclude NASA, NOAA, NRO or other non-military space organizations or missions of the U.S. government.
  • Require the Space Force to organize, train and equip forces to provide for U.S. freedom of  operation in the space domain; provide independent military options for joint and national leadership; and enable the lethality and effectiveness of the joint force.
  • Propose to the President relevant operational authority changes.
  • Conduct periodic reviews to determine the appropriate time to propose legislation to establish a separate military department.

SPD-4 also stipulates that the FY2020 budget request will include a budget for the Space Force.  During the media telecon, Senior Administration Officials emphasized it will be a “lean” budget more in line with Shanahan’s November estimate of a few billion dollars than with the September Air Force estimate of $12.9 billion.  They stressed that it represents the cost of the Space Force itself, not the space programs it will execute.

The directive further requires the Secretary of Defense and the Director of National Intelligence to report to the President within 180 days on how to create and enhance mechanisms for collaboration across the two communities.

In addition to creating a Space Force, Trump is reestablishing a unified combatant command, U.S. Space Command.  Such a command existed from 1985-2002, but was eliminated in a reorganization of the combatant commands after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.

Congress does not need to approve that action and the process is already underway.  SPD-4 does, however, lay out the responsibilities of the commander of that new command — to lead space warfighting through global space operations that may occur in the space domain, the terrestrial domains, or through the electromagnetic spectrum.  It also directs the U.S. Space Command to “ensure unfettered access to, and freedom to operate in, space and provide vital effects and capabilities to joint and coalition forces during peacetime and across the spectrum of conflict.”

During the media telecon, a Senior Administration Official differentiated between the Space Force and the Space Command.   The civilian-led Space Force will organize, train and equip forces to meet threats and protect U.S. interests.  The military-led Space Command will organize and direct combat power.  That is similar to how DOD is organized for terrestrial warfighting domains (land, sea, air and cyber).

A decision has not yet been made as to where the new U.S. Space Command will be physically located.  Senior Administration Officials said this morning that the decision will follow the principle of being lean and efficient and to avoid building new things.  An official DOD basing study will determine the final location.

SPD-4 does not address another element of the Space Force debate — establishing a Space Development Agency to ensure the Space Force has cutting-edge warfighting capabilities. A Senior Administration Official said this morning that the SDA is being developed within DOD and does not require congressional approval, hence its omission from SPD-4.

The next step is for Shanahan to provide the draft legislative proposal to the President via the Office of Management and  Budget.  Then it will be submitted to Congress.

At that point, it will be in Congress’s court.  The original idea to create a Space Corps, which is essentially what Trump is proposing although he calls it a Space Force, originated in the House Armed Services Committee (HASC) and passed the House in 2017.  It was rejected by the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC).  Much has changed since then.  For starters, the House is now in Democratic hands, although the four key players — the Chairman and Ranking member of the full committee and the Strategic Forces subcommittee — were closely involved in the debate last time.

The new HASC chairman, Rep. Adam Smith (D-Washington) and subcommittee chairman, Rep. Jim Cooper (D-Tennessee), were the top Democrats on the full committee and subcommittee respectively at that time.  Cooper was a strong advocate of the Space Corps.  Smith appeared lukewarm. Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Texas) chaired HASC at the time and is now Ranking Member.  He was an advocate then and remains so today according to a statement issued today.

“This is an important next step towards real reform of national security space where we face real threats posed by Russia and China. The House Armed Services Committee led the way in passing a similar measure several years ago, so this proposal has a record of attracting bipartisan support in Congress. I look forward to reviewing the final legislative proposal when it is submitted to Congress.”  Rep. Mac Thornberry

The current Ranking Member of the Strategic Forces subcommittee, Rep. Mike Turner (R-Ohio), was one of the few HASC members to oppose the Space Corps in 2017.  He appears to have an open mind about this proposal, however.

On the Senate side, Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Oklahoma) has succeeded the late John McCain as chairman of SASC.  His comments on Space Force so far have been mixed and he recently indicated that he is in no hurry to hold hearings on the idea.  Full committee Ranking Member Sen. Jack Reed (D-Rhode Island) has not been enthusiastic in the past.  The views of SASC Strategic Forces subcommittee chair Sen. Deb Fischer (R-Nebraska) and Ranking Member Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-New Mexico) are unclear.

In essence, it is far from certain that Congress will agree.  The details of the legislative proposal required by SPD-4 and how effectively Administration officials defend it on Capitol Hill will determine its fate.

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