Space Force Nears Approval as First New Military Arm Since 1947

  • Bicameral, bipartisan support seen in defense policy bills
  • Funding may differ from Pentagon request but still be enough

The Pentagon’s proposed Space Force, vying to be the first new branch of the military created in more than 70 years, may now be a done deal with just the name and structural details left to hash out.

The House Armed Services Committee under a Democratic majority voted Thursday for what it calls Space Corps, following a similar move last month by the GOP-led Senate backing a Space Force—the name President Donald Trump coined. While initially met with skepticism in Congress, the panels almost certainly will greenlight the dedicated unit in the final defense authorization bill this year.

Specifics such as the Space Force structure still need to be worked out. House appropriators are also angling to restrict funding due to their own questions and doubts. But the Pentagon and Trump, who has touted Space Force, are now headed for a major victory with the creation of the first separate service branch since the Air Force was formed in 1947.

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“It’s probably got an 80% or 90% chance of passing at this point because you’ve got both the Democratic House getting behind this in principle and the Senate as well,” said Todd Harrison, defense budget and aerospace analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

“If it doesn’t happen this year, if it fails to get authorized this year, then I think it’ll be several years before it comes back up,” he said. Harrison said it was unclear what could scuttle the new service at this point.

The creation of a space service would be the culmination of several years of debate, including a House Armed Services push for a Space Corps in 2017 and Trump’s revival of the idea that he called Space Force during rallies last year.

The bicameral support for Space Force comes as the Pentagon is looking to counter China’s and Russia’s development of new technology to target military and civilian satellites that are crucial to U.S. warfare and a vast array of public services. The House had pursued a space service in 2017 before the Senate killed the effort.

The Pentagon in March proposed $72 million to set up the Space Force headquarters with 160 personnel in the department of the Air Force, similar to how the Marine Corps is located within the Navy. It asked for a four-star general to lead the service and sit on the Joint Chiefs of Staff, as well as a new undersecretary of the Air Force for space.

House, Senate Variances

The House legislation added to the National Defense Authorization Act bill (H.R. 2500) was sponsored by Reps. Jim Cooper(D-Tenn.) and Mike Rogers (R-Ala.), the architects of the 2017 push. The Space Corps name comes from that earlier proposal.

“The strategic forces subcommittee spent years reviewing the problems we were having in national security space. This is something that took a lot of time and energy, and we have a lot of thought put into it,” Rogers said.

The proposed Space Corps would exist within the Department of the Air Force, draw its personnel from existing airmen and be led by a commandant who sits on the Joint Chiefs of Staff, under the House proposal.

The Senate Armed Services Committee also largely approved the Pentagon request, including a commander who sits on the Joint Chiefs, despite grumbling by members in April over costs and creation of a new bureaucracy. As senators balked at the earlier hearing, Gen. John Hyten, the head of U.S. Strategic Command, warned of a potential catastrophe in space without a Space Force to direct defense efforts.

Senators scrapped the Air Force undersecretary position in favor of an assistant defense secretary for space policy who would answer to the defense secretary. Their version of the authorization bill (S. 1790)would slow the stand-up of the Space Force by imposing a year-long period before the service chief would fully take over.

In an effort to overhaul troubled space acquisition, they would re-designate a principal assistant to the Air Force secretary on space to deal specifically with buying new space hardware.

“They made some changes. The answer is that’s the sort of thing we expect each committee to do,” acting Deputy Defense Secretary David Norquist said at a Center for a New American Security appearance May 30. “I doubt there is anything that they’ve been talking about that we wouldn’t be able to work through and find a way to address.”

Norquist said it was a “great step forward” and the most important point for the Pentagon was getting the Space Force authorized. The Air Force declined to comment for this story.

The earlier Senate decision to support the new service was a turning point and significantly boosted the chances of the proposal being approved by Congress for fiscal year 2020, Harrison said.

Funding a Question

How much money the Space Force will get remains a question.

The House Appropriations Committee on May 21 balked at the request for $72 million to stand-up the service’s headquarters. Its spending bill (H.R. 2740), approved May 21, doles out just $15 million and orders the Pentagon to report back on its progress.

“The department was unable to answer basic questions about the structure of the force nor could they provide the committee with a detailed long-term cost estimate,” Rep. Pete Visclosky(D-Ind.), the appropriations defense panel chairman, said before the vote last month.

Rep. Kay Granger(R-Texas), the ranking Republican on the panel who strongly backs creating a Space Force this year, said the Pentagon should have done a better job communicating but lawmakers were also partly to blame for not focusing specifically on understanding a new space service by holding additional hearings.

“It is absolutely mandatory particularly that we move now,” Granger said. “What’s happening as we are talking is China and Russia, they are very actively developing high-tech weapons that could deny our access to space.”

Harrison said the $15 million in the House spending bill could be enough to get the new service started, if it is authorized in the armed services’ defense bill.

“There is a smaller amount of seed money and nothing in the bill prohibits the Pentagon from spending money on standing up the Space Force,” he said.

The Republican-led Senate has yet to release its version of an annual defense spending bill.

“I think there is definitely a wish to ease into the Space Force or Space Corps, that it would be something that would be an iterative process where you would get the basic outline up there and you would back-fill it with personnel as time goes on,” said Victoria Samson, a space security analyst and Washington office director for Secure World Foundation.

To contact the reporter on this story: Travis J. Tritten at ttritten@bgov.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Paul Hendrie at phendrie@bgov.com; Bernie Kohn at bkohn@bloomberglaw.com; Jonathan Nicholson at jnicholson@bgov.com