Politics

3 Takeaways From the Pence ‘Space Force’ Sales Pitch

Vice president ignores white elephant: a skeptical military and Congress

 Space Force was on the mind of Vice President Mike Pence, seen here in the Rotunda last year. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

There’s a new applause line in President Donald Trump’s campaign spiel.

It’s not quite up there with “Crooked Hillary” or demanding professional football players who kneel for the National Anthem to “get the hell out of here.” Crowds react with loud cheers when the president touts his envisioned “Space Force.”

“I've also directed the Pentagon to begin the process of creating the sixth branch of the United States Armed Forces called the Space Force,” he said Saturday in central Ohio.

“Space, very important,” he said as the crowd interrupted him with applause before promising them the galactic service would be “great,” providing “tremendous defense capability, offensive capability.” (The latter means taking action against adversaries.)

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The Olentangy Orange High School gymnasium again was filled with loud applause. Comedians mock the idea and senior members of the military are skeptical, but that has not deterred the commander in chief.

But presidents cannot just order up a new branch of the military. Enter Vice President Mike Pence, who could find himself a point man for selling the Space Force to Congress.

Pence — as he has with the president’s tax, health care and immigration promises — started Thursday trying to insert the policy bones into the slab of red meat his boss has been serving to supporters about the “Space Force.”

During a speech at the Pentagon, Pence labeled outer space a “war-fighting domain” just like land, sea and air. And he said the administration wants it to be formally established by 2020.

Here are three takeaways from the vice president’s cosmic comments:

Friendly fire

“We are going to have the Air Force and we are going to have a Space Force,” Trump said in June, adding, “Separate but equal,” a perhaps unintentional nod to the slogan that defined segregation in America for decades.

The president has said nothing to explain how his administration will prevent Air Force brass from blocking — or slow rolling — his plans. The Air Force currently controls most of the U.S. military’s space arsenal. That means pricey satellites and the vast infrastructure to support them compose a large portion of the air service’s annual budget. And it gives the Air Force another seat at any table for a major military operation.

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When Pence said now is the right time to create a sixth branch just for heavenly operations, the audience in a Pentagon auditorium remained silent. Minutes later, however, when he declared American military personnel who focus on space operations and systems “the best,” they reacted with loud applause.

The VP also announced the creation of a new position, an assistant secretary of defense for space, who will help establish the force. That post will need the full backing of Defense Secretary James Mattis — and secretaries who follow — to fight Air Force and other services’ efforts to keep as much of their space arsenals and personnel as they can in the coming bureaucratic and budgetary brawl.

Allies as adversaries

Rep. Michael R. Turner votes with Trump 94 percent of the time, according to CQ voting studies. The Ohio Republican is chairman of the House Armed Services Tactical Air and Land Forces subcommittee. That’s a problem for Trump and Pence on this issue. That’s because “Space Force” falls in the sliver of issues on which he disagrees with the president.

Turner has made clear approval of such a proposal in the House goes through his subcommittee, and he is mighty skeptical the Air Force isn’t doing the job well already. A former mayor of Dayton, Turner has made protecting the interests of the massive Wright-Patterson Air Force Base a priority in his career. 

To get congressional approval for a sixth armed service, Trump would also need Democratic votes in the Senate. That gives Florida Sen. Bill Nelson, the top Democrat on the Armed Services Cybersecurity subcommittee, some sway. Nelson, a former astronaut, said in June that the “generals tell me they don’t want” a “Space Force,” adding “now is not the time to rip the Air Force apart.” He faces a tough race in November against Florida Gov. Rick Scott, who has the full support of the White House. 

Pence chose to ignore the white elephant in the “Space Force” debate during his Pentagon remarks. He opted against mentioning Congress. But administration officials will not be able to simply ignore lawmakers’ constitutional authorities for long.

‘Weapons of war’

It’s clear the Trump administration is not pushing for the new force just to develop and operate satellites to spy on adversaries and ensure U.S. forces can communicate and receive they information they need during conflicts.

Pence referred to space as an “emerging battlefield” and the “next battlefield,” saying the main goal of the proposed “Space Force” is U.S. “dominance in space.” Despite the vast array of U.S. military and intelligence systems already orbiting the Earth, the vice president said the blame for militarizing space lies with countries like Russia, China, North Korea and Iran.

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He described systems those four countries have fielded in recent years for use outside the Earth’s atmosphere as “weapons,” many designed specifically to “jam, blind and disable our navigation and communication satellites from the ground.”

Pence warned that U.S. foes already are deploying “weapons of war” into space. And he sent a message to each one — and to skeptics on Capitol Hill.

“What was once peaceful and uncontested, is now crowded and adversarial,” he said. “Today, other nations are seeking to disrupt our space-based systems and challenge our … supremacy is in space as never before. … As their actions make clear, our adversaries have transformed space into a war-fighting domain. And the United States will not shrink from this challenge.”

The hawkish remarks made clear “Space Force” would be, under the Trump vision, an extension of his “America first” philosophy, under which countries aggressively look out for their own interests first — and should be ready to fight for them, economically or militarily.

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