It was, to be sure, a bold and audacious move from a relatively unknown member of Congress, who moved forward despite fervent objections from both the Defense Department and the White House and not so much as a full committee hearing or debate.
Alabama Republican Mike D. Rogers nevertheless used his perch atop a House Armed Services subcommittee to slip language into the annual Pentagon policy bill to create an entirely new military service focused on space.
He rewrote the power structure within the military and added a new member to the exclusive Joint Chiefs of Staff, something that has traditionally happened only after a bruising, years-long turf war.
With the backing of Armed Services leaders, the provision moved at warp speed, sailing through the House as part of the massive defense bill in June, just weeks after his Strategic Forces panel first approved it.
Never mind that Space Corps, so named by its creator, will almost certainly die during negotiations with the Senate, which is unlikely to stand up a new fighting force so rapidly. Rogers may still have logged a significant and crafty political victory by putting space into the defense spotlight for the first time in years.
Even if dead on arrival in the Senate, which passed its version of the annual policy bill on Monday, his proposal may have boosted policy interest in space competition at a time when it affects everything from bank transactions to missile defense — and as the United States risks falling behind Russia and China in a new-age space race.
The threat that America could lose its advantage compelled Rogers to pull out all the stops for Space Corps.
“We as a world have become very dependent on space domestically, commercially, but not only that, militarily,” Rogers said. “Space has become an absolutely integral part of our ability to fight and win wars, which is why China and Russia have begun to exert so much influence over that part of their defense budget.”
A 2015 Pentagon report outlined China’s expanded emphasis on offensive space capabilities, detailing that the People’s Liberation Army has developed anti-satellite weapons capable of disabling U.S. satellites. Many of those potential targets are operated by the Air Force and provide the GPS capabilities used by air traffic controllers, power plants and smartphones.
There is little ambiguity behind Beijing’s intentions. The Chinese military’s own writings have said that they are developing these capabilities to “blind and deafen the enemy.”
“Literally, American lives are at risk,” said a House GOP aide who has sat in classified briefings on the topic.
While China continues to increase its war-fighting capabilities in space, Beijing has already proven itself on a smaller scale. A decade ago, when one of its missiles blew up a decrepit Chinese weather satellite, China joined the ranks of Russia and the United States as the only countries to have destroyed space assets.
Russia, always the United States’ fiercest competitor in space, displayed its advancements in 2014 by launching two different satellites that tracked and intercepted the communications from European and U.S. military satellites.
Experts say these Russian spy machines could also be used to crash into adversary satellites, which could take GPS offline — and, by extension, the terrestrial systems that depend on it.
In standing up Space Corps, Rogers believes America’s space warfighters would be able to avoid the clunky acquisition process that has bogged down the procurement of new satellite technologies. A separate service, he argues, would be able to focus on winning the fight in space instead of navigating political fights within the Air Force.
“We want people that come to work every day in the Space Corps to know that space is the number one mission they have — space dominance,” Rogers said. “And they have just as much of a chance at success and career growth and development as you would if you were a fighter pilot in the Air Force.”
Even Space Corps detractors, from the Air Force to members of the Armed Services committees, agree that the United States risks falling behind its space rivals.
“I agree that this is an important issue,” Rep. Michael R. Turner said during House Armed Services debate on the sprawling Pentagon policy bill this spring. “Certainly, I agree with [Rogers] on the failures in the space program under the Air Force.”
But the Ohio Republican vehemently opposes Rogers’ solution. Turner, who chairs another Armed Services subcommittee that oversees Air Force programs, emerged as Space Corps’ chief antagonist, offering a failed amendment to study Space Corps for a year instead of creating the new service — a favorite stalling tactic on Capitol Hill.
If not for Turner’s amendment, the only one that would have affected Space Corps, the historic provision could have slipped through the panel largely unnoticed.
“This is honestly the first time I’ve heard about a major reorganization to our Air Force and Department of Defense,” Arizona Rep. Martha McSally said during debate on Turner’s amendment.
But it was hardly the first time Space Corps had been discussed publicly or at the Capitol.
A week before the Armed Services Committee voted to send the defense authorization bill to the floor, Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson and Chief of Staff Gen. David L. Goldfein fielded questions from reporters on Rogers’ proposal, railing against the creation of Space Corps and generating some buzz about the debate.
“The Pentagon is complicated enough,” Wilson said. “This will make it more complex, add more boxes to the organization chart and cost more money. If I had more money, I would put it into lethality, not bureaucracy.”
Turner, who sat on Armed Services with Wilson when she was a New Mexico congresswoman, largely agrees. He believes that more due diligence is needed before Congress establishes a new military branch.
“There has been no work on defining the solution or identifying Space Corps as the solution,” Turner said. “No one can define the structure or costs or [what the] effect would be of Space Corps, which is the basic foundation-level work that Congress needs to do before it goes and establishes a new service branch.”
But Space Corps’ staunchest advocates say they became convinced of its merits during early morning classified committee briefings on space and an exhaustive (though private) debate in the Strategic Forces Subcommittee.
“A full committee hearing is more of a show for the press than it is something that we can educate members on,” Tennessee Rep. Jim Cooper, the top Democrat on Rogers’ panel, said. Those briefings have detailed the nature of the threats from Russia and China. “The real meat of the matter is in these very classified hearings in a separate room.”
While Turner’s stalling tactic to further study Space Corps fell flat in the House, he has found allies in the Senate.
Shortly after Congress returned to session in September, Arkansas Republican Tom Cotton and Florida Democrat Bill Nelson offered an amendment to the Senate’s version of the defense authorization bill that would prohibit Space Corps from being funded, underscoring the chamber’s reluctance to establish a service branch without deeper analysis.
Rogers’ proposal wouldn’t just create a new service branch. It would add a Space Corps member to the Joint Chiefs of Staff. If history is any guide, the military does not take kindly to broadening this exclusive club.
Although Marine Corps Gen. Joseph Dunford Jr. currently chairs the Joint Chiefs, the Marines weren’t represented on the panel for the first 31 years of its existence. It wasn’t until 1978, after a protracted political battle, that the Marine Corps was included.
The most recent addition to the Joint Chiefs came in 2012 when Congress added the National Guard despite vehement opposition from then-Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin E. Dempsey and other senior military officers.
“I can tell you having lived through having the director of the National Guard Bureau added to the chiefs, that is not a trivial thing,” retired Air Force Gen. Norton Schwartz said. It was passed, he said, largely because of the number of senators who served as governors and controlled the National Guard as part of their duties.
Previous battles aside, Space Corps’ biggest cheerleaders say they don’t see any roadblocks to further enlarging the Joint Chiefs — perhaps an overly optimistic view.
For its part, the Air Force would prefer to make much more incremental internal changes.
In October 2015, the Pentagon established the Joint Interagency Combined Space Operations Center at Schriever Air Force Base in Colorado Springs, Colo. The center, recently renamed the National Space Defense Center, brings together U.S. Strategic Command, the Air Force and the National Reconnaissance Office, a geospatial intelligence service, to assist in information-sharing between the defense and intelligence communities on space matters.
“That is an organizational initiative that I think people on Capitol Hill and in the department see as value added,” Schwartz said.
The Air Force, meanwhile, is also trying to add real value to the space effort, increasing the budget for space programs by 20 percent in its fiscal 2018 request.
Since April, when Rogers first hinted of his proposal during a speech at the Space Symposium in Colorado Springs, the Air Force has made additional changes to its command structure to emphasize space operations.
At the same symposium, Wilson announced the creation of a new position — deputy chief of staff for space operations — to directly advise her on space operations. The new position, dubbed the A11, is perhaps the clearest signal from Wilson to Rogers that the Air Force can dominate space without a new service branch.
The new position directly addresses Rogers’ gripe that space professionals in the Air Force aren’t promoted nearly as often in the service as fighter and bomber pilots. But for space hawks on the Hill, the three-star position is not enough.
“I see A11 as lipstick on a pig,” a House Republican aide said. “What on Earth is another three-star going to do to solve this problem? It’s just going to add another layer.”
What’s more, a number of Space Corps proponents see the Air Force’s newfound emphasis on space as a way to simply appease Congress rather than a genuine response to space threats.
“I have no doubt that that is the case,” California Democratic Rep. John Garamendi said. But he said the legislation has motivated the Air Force to put a new priority on space.
A member of the Strategic Forces Subcommittee, Garamendi said he is happy to see Space Corps rattle the national security establishment.
“This discussion is an example of the success of one important goal and that is to raise this entire subject matter to the point where the Joint Chiefs of Staff are screaming, where the Air Force is radically upset, where reporters are suddenly going, ‘What the heck is going on here?’ ” Garamendi said. “So, at a minimum, an important goal has been achieved.”
Just one day after Congress gaveled back into session following the August recess, the Center for Strategic and International Studies held an event dubbed “How to Organize Military Space.” Space Corps drove each conversation throughout the day.
But for Rogers, changing the conversation is not enough. The eight-term congressman, who could potentially become the vice chairman of the Armed Services Committee in 2018, is determined to launch Space Corps as a service branch, not a talking point.
“I am not going away,” Rogers said, adding, “We will do this.”