President Donald Trump may typically communicate via quickly fired, unfiltered tweets, but when he talks about creating a Space Force to defend vulnerable U.S. satellites and other extraterrestrial interests, his language becomes uncharacteristically poetic.
“The essence of the American character is to explore new horizons and to tame new frontiers,” he said in June as he instructed the Defense Department to create this new force. “But our destiny, beyond the Earth, is not only a matter of national identity, but a matter of national security — important for our military, so important.”
Trump’s supporters share his enthusiasm. His oft-touted proposal has become a big applause line during campaign rallies, which are now punctuated with loud chants of “Space Force! Space Force!”
But Trump needs to convince more than his base of the need for this new military service. He can’t create a sixth branch of the military — the first in more than 60 years — without congressional authorization. And if Trump wants to stick to his ambitious goal of standing up the force within two years, he’ll need to sell the idea fast, a particularly heavy lift considering Democrats will have control of the House come January.
Support from the Republican-controlled Senate, meanwhile, looks much more promising but isn’t exactly guaranteed, especially on Trump’s expedited timetable.
Senators previously rejected a House-passed proposal to create a Space Corps within the Department of the Air Force, akin to the Marine Corps’ relationship within the Navy. But there are signs that at least members of Trump’s own party may be coming around to the idea of Space Force, which the administration proposes to be a new, independent department in the Pentagon.
Still, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have questioned whether adding to the Pentagon’s already massive bureaucracy is necessary or even helpful in making the emerging space mission more of a priority within the Defense Department.
To succeed, Trump needs well-placed supporters to sell his idea on Capitol Hill. Among them are his former foe, Texas Republican Sen. Ted Cruz, who sits on the Senate Armed Services Committee.
The 116th Congress won’t convene for another month, and Cruz is already angling to incrementally advance the president’s proposal in the fiscal 2020 defense authorization bill.
“It may not be Space Force in [fiscal 2020],” a GOP aide with direct knowledge of Cruz’s plans said, “but we’re trying to make sure that we can lay the groundwork for its successful inclusion.”
A classified, members-only briefing on space threats held last spring convinced Cruz to take legislative action, the aide said. It’s unclear who exactly would benefit from Space Force, but Houston has long been a NASA hub and could stand to expand its space industry with a larger Defense Department emphasis on the mission.
Cruz could have an ally in the new chairman of the Armed Services Committee, whose mind seems to have changed on the matter following a two-hour private meeting this summer with Defense Secretary James Mattis.
“They’re winning me over,” Republican Sen. James M. Inhofe of Oklahoma said, adding he doesn’t want to lose ground to Russia and China, which have more overtly emphasized space within their militaries.
Inhofe has said his panel will hold hearings on space before Congress begins its work on the next authorization bill. Unlike his predecessor, Arizona Republican John McCain, who died in August, Inhofe has already shown a bias for action.
“If we’re gonna have it,” Inhofe said, “let’s go ahead and get on with it.”
That won’t likely sit well with Washington Democrat Adam Smith, who is expected to chair the House Armed Services Committee.
In 2017, Smith supported the Space Corps proposal, which originated in the Armed Services Strategic Forces Subcommittee. But he doesn’t back Trump’s idea and would almost certainly fight it during conference negotiations on the Pentagon policy measure.
In a recent statement, Smith said he is concerned that Trump’s proposal “would create additional costly military bureaucracy at a time when we have limited resources for defense and critical domestic priorities, and I do not believe it is the best way to advance U.S. national security.”
It isn’t just the Armed Services Committee Trump must convince. Appropriators will ultimately decide how much it’s willing to invest in Space Force.
In the House, New York Democrat Nita M. Lowey, a staunch Trump critic, will soon chair the Appropriations Committee and isn’t likely to sign on to the idea. And Senate Appropriations Chairman Richard C. Shelby has been lukewarm on Space Force too.
Shelby wants more information from the Pentagon — detailed cost proposals, justification for the service, command structures, etc. — before cutting a check. The Pentagon, though, could sweeten the pot for the Alabama Republican if they promise to utilize his state’s vast space resources to help stand up Space Force.
But military space assets are spread across the country, with significant facilities in Colorado, Florida and California. Appeasing one member or delegation could engender opposition from another, meaning someone like Shelby could just as easily opt to keep space assets as they are rather than risk losing government work or contractors to another state.
“Companies and individuals who support the status quo don’t want to see change, because that creates risk, risk to their jobs, risk to their missions,” said Todd Harrison, director of the aerospace security project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Amid questions about Space Force’s political prospects, the White House’s National Space Council, which is leading the effort alongside the Pentagon, remains undeterred.
“The direction to create the U.S. Space Force remains exactly the same, and the Space Council is continuing to work with the departments and agencies responsible for implementing the President’s direction to develop the sixth branch of the Armed Forces,” a spokesman said.
With all the uncertainty and unanswered questions surrounding Space Force, Harrison said he doesn’t think the Pentagon and the White House have a legislative strategy worked out yet.
“I don’t think the sales job has started in earnest because I don’t think they’ve settled on what they’re selling,” he said.
Doug Loverro, who served as deputy assistant secretary of Defense for space policy during the Obama administration, agrees that the administration needs a unified voice and vision of what Space Force should be.
Loverro, who left the government before the Trump administration called for the creation of such a force, said a centralized effort to protect America’s assets in space is badly needed, and Space Force is far and away the best way to accomplish that mission.
One way to convince Congress is to market Space Force as a down payment on the country’s security.
“We made an investment in 1947 and created an Air Force, and there’s not a single individual in the entire country who would question the wisdom of that investment,” Loverro said. “That’s the investment we’re talking about making.”
Loverro favors building upon existing support in House Armed Services. Leaders of the Strategic Forces Subcommittee, Republican Mike D. Rogers of Alabama and Democrat Jim Cooper of Tennessee, are already vocal supporters of Trump’s plan.
Rogers convened several private meetings for members on the topic, said Loverro, who was invited to share his thoughts.
Another target: Texas Republican Mac Thornberry, the outgoing Armed Services chairman who backed the 2000 legislation that created the Rumsfeld Commission, an early study of how best to organize U.S. military efforts in space.
Both Harrison and Loverro agree that keeping the issue nonpartisan is key.
“It didn’t start as a partisan political issue, and I think that’s good for a healthy debate. There are good ideas on all sides of that issue,” said Harrison. “As long as it remains nonpartisan, the odds of something good, an improvement on the current system, are higher.”
But it’s impossible to separate the issue completely from the commander in chief, whose enthusiasm has its downsides, Harrison cautions. When the Trump campaign put out a fundraising email earlier this year that included potential Space Force logos suggesting a military branch could be responsible for a mission to Mars, it quickly turned Space Force into a punchline.
Still, Trump’s interest and advocacy have given Space Force a national profile that it wouldn’t otherwise have.
“Without a presidential push, this goes nowhere,” Harrison said.
Failure to launch?
When the Pentagon announced its proposal in August, Vice President Mike Pence said Space Force would be in the Pentagon’s fiscal 2020 budget request, delivered to Capitol Hill in February.
“We will call on the Congress to marshal the resources we need to stand up the Space Force,” Pence said.
But in the intervening months, the Defense Department’s 2020 budget outlook has shifted radically. The Pentagon initially envisioned a $733 billion national security budget, up from this year’s $716 billion. Last month, Deputy Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan confirmed the Pentagon is preparing a second 2020 budget at $700 billion, part of a broader administration push to cut spending.
With Democrats controlling the House, the Pentagon is unlikely to get its wished-for $733 billion figure, and perhaps not even the anticipated $700 billion request.
Initial estimates put the price tag for Space Force at $13 billion, although Shanahan said recently he thinks the figure could end up being less than $5 billion. Either way, it’s not cheap, and new initiatives — particularly those without a built-in constituency on Capitol Hill — are often the first to get cut.
Shanahan, however, is undeterred.
“Here’s what I feel very confident about: that the proposal that we’re going to carry forward makes sense,” he told reporters. “We’re really diligently putting together a proposal that can withstand the cost scrutiny questions.”
A big part of success or failure, said Loverro, will be whether the administration can convince Congress that Space Force isn’t just affordable, but it’s the best structural option.
It’s a heavy political lift, but Shanahan is optimistic the Pentagon can stick to Trump’s ambitious plan.
“What we’re really targeting is to submit the legislative proposal, so that October 1st of next year, we can say, here’s the birthday of the Space Force,” Shanahan said.
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