Calling outer space the “next battlefield,” Vice President Mike Pence outlined a bellicose mission Thursday for the Trump administration’s proposed “space force,” saying it would fight adversaries and spread American values beyond Earth.
His remarks at the Pentagon, applauded by an audience that included Defense Secretary James N. Mattis and top military commanders, represented a sharp break from decades of high-level U.S. calls for the peaceful development of outer space for all nations.
Pence said Russia, China and other U.S. adversaries were building anti-satellite and other weapons aimed at degrading the U.S. military’s space dominance. It marked the first detailed justification by a top U.S. official for President Trump’s call for a sixth military service to focus on war fighting in space.
“Now the time has come to write the next great chapter in the history of our armed forces, to prepare for the next battlefield where America’s best and bravest will be called to deter and defeat a new generation of threats to our people, to our nation,” Pence said.
He said the space force also would “carry American ideals into the boundless expanse of space,” promoting “freedom, private property and the rule of law.”
The soaring, even messianic, rhetoric was aimed at overcoming lukewarm support for a space force in Congress, which must approve its creation, and at the Pentagon. The Air Force, in particular, worries the proposed new service will shrink its budget and importance, and it has powerful defenders in Congress.
One factor driving the White House’s focus on a space force is the idea’s popularity among Trump’s supporters when he touts it at political rallies. After Pence spoke, the president tweeted, “Space Force all the way!"
Trump's 2020 reelection campaign also emailed supporters and asked for feedback on six potential logos with red, blue and pink-hued designs for the space force. “As a way to celebrate President Trump's huge announcement, our campaign will be selling a new line of gear," the email said.
Only Congress has the power to create a new branch of the military. The House and Senate will not take up the issue until next year, when Pence said the administration would forward a proposal to create the space force as a separate service alongside the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard.
That means, at least in theory, the space force could be created as early as 2020.
Although the Pentagon has been building capabilities in space for at least a decade, “we’ve cloaked it in the rhetoric of being the defender of peaceful uses of space,” said John Logsdon, a space expert and emeritus professor at George Washington University. The tone of Pence’s remarks, he said, was “consistent with the Trump administration intention to dominate militarily in space.”
Russia and China are pursuing anti-satellite weapons, as well as cyber capabilities that could target satellite technology, potentially leaving U.S. troops in combat without electronic communications or navigation abilities.
But major questions remain unanswered about a space force, including how much it would cost to create, precisely what it would do, and what parts of the Air Force and other major Pentagon agencies and operations will be raided to build it.
It’s unclear, for example, whether current missile defense programs, which are divided among the Army, the Navy and a freestanding agency, would fall under the service’s purview. Nor was it clear how it would mesh with the reality of the last two decades, when the Pentagon was engaged in grueling ground wars and anti-terrorism campaigns around the globe.
A new military branch would require layers of new bureaucracy, military and civilian leaders, separate uniforms, and high-tech equipment — all of which could cost billions of dollars, experts said.
Several House members, including Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Ala.) and Rep. Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.) vowed support on Thursday. But senior Republicans on the Senate Armed Services Committee, including Chairman John McCain of Arizona and James Inhofe of Oklahoma, have voiced opposition in the past.
More political pushback is likely to emerge as supporters of the Air Force and other armed services mobilize on Capitol Hill to protect their roles and budgets.
The Pentagon has not added a new military service since 1947, when the Air Force split off from the Army Air Corps.
“This is way harder than standing up the Air Force, which had evolved into a separate organization from the Army during World War II,” said Douglas L. Loverro, the former deputy assistant secretary of Defense for space policy during the Obama administration and a space force supporter. “This is the creation of an entirely new force, which the U.S. has never done before.”
The space force would be responsible for training and equipping military personnel specializing in space operations, as well buying and operating satellites and other military space systems.
In a report to Congress released as Pence spoke, the Pentagon said it would implement interim steps aimed at paving the way for a space force, including creation of the U.S. Space Command, overseen by a four-star general, which will centralize planning for space war fighting.
The Pentagon also will create an agency that will take over design and procurement of some satellites and other space systems. Pence said the new agency, which ultimately would fall under the proposed Space Force, would help the Department of Defense "break free from ineffective and duplicative bureaucratic structures."
But in a sign of the fierce budget infighting to come, the Pentagon report said that “some existing space acquisition programs may remain in current service organizations,” though the goal would be to shift them to the new agency “as soon as practicable.”
The report also calls for the creation of "a Space Operations Force of career space experts who are trained, promoted and retained as space warfighting professionals" including engineers, scientists, intelligence experts, operators and strategists.
In addition, a new position of assistant secretary of defense for space will be created at the Pentagon to have a civilian appointee overseeing creation of the service and its components.