Trump Upstages SPD-3 With Space Force Announcement

Trump Upstages SPD-3 With Space Force Announcement

President Trump signed Space Policy Directive-3 (SPD-3) today as expected, but it was his order to Gen. Joseph Dunford, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to create a Space Force that stole the show. Trump has called for creation of a Space Force before, but his explicit direction to his top military officer to do it was a first, publicly at least.  In reality, however, Congress would have a major role to play in any such military reorganization.

The White House National Space Council held its third public meeting today at the White House. Chaired by Vice President Mike Pence, President Trump was expected to attend and sign SPD-3, which establishes roles and responsibilities for Space Situational Awareness (SSA) and Space Traffic Management (STM).

Vice President Mike Pence speaks at Space Symposium, April 2018.

Pence teed up the directive in April at a speech at the Space Symposium.  Space Council Executive Secretary Scott Pace has spoken about in other venues.  It is motivated largely by the plans of several companies to launch mega-constellations of thousands of small satellites into low Earth orbit.  That spotlights the need to know exactly what is in space and where it is going (SSA) and to manage it (STM) to ensure there are no more collisions in orbit. The goal is to ensure a sustainable space environment that future generations can use.

The issue has been debated for many years. DOD tracks space objects and maintains the authoritative catalog of what and where they are and, to the extent known, who owns them.   It also currently is the interface to civil government agencies and commercial companies to share that data and issue “conjunction analyses” — warnings that a collision may occur.  DOD wants to be relieved of its non-military responsibilities so it can focus on its own requirements.

There is widespread agreement on that, but the question is what civil government agency should take on the civil/commercial interface role from DOD.  For several years, the Department of Transportation (DOT) was in the lead on the basis that it would build on existing capabilities at the FAA with its air traffic control system and the Office of Commercial Space Transportation.

In the Trump Administration, however, the Department of Commerce (DOC) has risen in prominence as the go-to agency for regulating and facilitating commercial space activities.  Historically, it has been responsible for regulating commercial remote sensing satellites and has an Office of  Space Commerce.  President Trump is significantly expanding Commerce’s responsibilities for commercial space. Those offices are being elevated to be under the direct supervision of  Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross and new duties added.  Ross announced today that Kevin O’Connell will be Director of this revitalized Office of Space Commence.

SPD-3 gives Commerce the major role in STM, although DOT would also play a part along with NASA and DOD.

As important as SPD-3 is, Trump’s Space Force comments have much larger implications.

SPD-3 does not include anything about the Space Force so what Trump said does not have the force of an Executive Order, at least yet.  Instead it seems to be another instance in which the President is expressing his own views on the subject, as he did in March and May, rather than as part of a deliberative interagency process.

Rep. Mike Rogers (R-AL), Chairman, Strategic Forces Subcommittee, House Armed Services Committee

The idea of a separate military service for space is not new.  Most recently, key members of the House Armed Services Committee (HASC) have been advocating for a Space Corps as part of the Air Force, analogous to the Marine Corps within the Department of the Navy.  HASC Strategic Forces subcommittee chairman Mike Rogers (R-AL) and ranking member Jim Cooper (D-TN) succeeded in getting that included in the House version of the FY2018 NDAA, but the Senate did not agree.  In addition to many Senators, major opponents last year included Secretary of Defense James Mattis, Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson, Air Force Chief of Staff David Goldfein, U.S. Strategic Command (USSTRATCOM) Commander Gen. John Hyten, and the White House itself. The compromise was to commission a study on options, which is currently underway.  A draft report is due in August and the final report in December.

Despite Trump’s Space Force remarks this spring, in May the White House opposed a HASC provision in this year’s NDAA to create a U.S. Space Command within USSTRATCOM.  It argued such an action would be premature before the report is delivered.

Thus, Trump’s statement today came as quite a surprise.

When it comes to defending America, it is not merely to have an American presence in space.  We must have American dominance in space. So important.

Very importantly, I’m hereby directing the Department of Defense and Pentagon to immediately begin the process necessary to establish a Space Force as the sixth branch of the armed forces. …

We are going to have the Air Force and we are going to have the Space Force. Separate but equal.  … General  Dunford, if you would carry that assignment out….  President Donald Trump

Dunford replied:  “We got it.”

Reaction to Trump’s comments were immediate.  Rogers was enthusiastic, tweeting “I couldn’t agree with @realDonaldTrump more.”

Conversely, Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL), a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, tweeted that “thankfully the president can’t do it without Congress because now is NOT the time to rip the Air Force apart.”

Nelson’s comment reflects the views of many top DOD and Air Force leaders — that a Space Corps or Space Force may be a great idea in the future,  but not now.  They argue that the focus at this moment should be on integrating space into an overall military framework as the paradigm shifts from the concept of space as a benign environment to one where it is a warfighting domain.

What happens next is unclear. Dunford may have said “got it,” but as Nelson pointed out, Congress has a say in this, too.  The House and Senate have already passed their FY2019 NDAA bills.

Dunford was directed to “begin the process” of creating a Space Force.  That could be as low-key as engaging in more talks with Congress or as intense as drafting legislation and taking preliminary steps within DOD. Considering DOD’s opposition to it in the past, he certainly has a challenge ahead of him.

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