President Trump signed a space policy directive Monday aimed at coordinating federal and industry efforts to manage space traffic and debris ahead of the expected launch of hundreds or even thousands of small satellites.
Trump also said he would direct the Defense Department and Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to create the Space Force as a sixth branch of the U.S. armed forces.
“We are going to have the Air Force, and we are going to have the Space Force,” Trump said. “Separate but equal.”
Dana White, chief Pentagon spokeswoman, said in a statement that the Defense Department’s policy board understands the president’s guidance and “will begin working on this issue, which has implications for intelligence operations for the Air Force, Army, Marines and Navy. Working with Congress, this will be a deliberate process with a great deal of input from multiple stakeholders.”
This isn’t the first time Trump has brought up the idea of a space-specific branch of the armed forces. The president suggested the creation of a Space Force in May during a celebration of U.S. Military Academy’s football team, saying the service would make sense because the United States was “getting very big in space both militarily and for other reasons.”
A similar idea for a “space corps” that would have been under the U.S. Air Force was passed in the House’s version of the 2019 National Defense Authorization Act, but did not make it through the Senate’s bill. In a compromise, lawmakers chose to put the idea on hold and instead conduct two studies — one of which would create a road map for how an independent military space organization would be developed.
“It’s clear we’ve been on that trajectory for a long time,” said Doug Loverro, former deputy assistant secretary of Defense for space policy. “The only argument was about when it was going to happen.”
A congressional vote would be necessary to create a new military service, and even if that vote were to pass, it would probably take several years to be fully implemented, said Todd Harrison, director of the aerospace security project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Defense Secretary James N. Mattis has previously opposed the creation of a separate space corps, saying in an October letter to the Senate Armed Services Committee that a new military service focused on space would add “additional organizational layers at a time when we are focused on reducing overhead and integrating joint war-fighting functions.” The Air Force has also been vocal about its opposition to a separate space service.
Later Monday, Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), ranking member on the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, tweeted that generals have told him they don’t want a Space Force and that there were “too many important missions at stake” to “rip the Air Force apart.”
Although approval by Congress is “not a foregone conclusion by any means,” Harrison said the odds of a Space Force are higher since the president has directed it.
Written materials distributed by the White House about the space policy plan do not mention the Space Force. The plan, signed at the White House during the third National Space Council meeting, is intended to help companies rapidly access information about the location in space where they want to launch.
This could help give companies more flexibility in launch windows and prevent satellites from using their onboard fuel to maneuver away from potential collisions with other satellites or space debris, Scott Pace, executive secretary of the National Space Council, said in a Monday morning call with reporters. He emphasized that coordination efforts and development of a framework would not happen “overnight.”
As part of the plan, federal departments and agencies will be assigned to various tasks related to space traffic and debris management, such as the Commerce Department’s job to make space safety data available to the public. The Defense Department will continue to maintain a catalog of space objects.