Creation of Trump's 'Space Force' May Take Years, Experts Say

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Former Apollo 17 astronaut Jack Schmitt hands a figurine to President Donald Trump after he signed a policy directive to send American astronauts back to the moon, and eventually Mars, in the Roosevelt Room of the White House, Monday, Dec. 11, 2017, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci) -- The Associated Press

The Pentagon is weighing how to best proceed after President Donald Trump on Monday announced his intent to create a "space force" as a new military branch.

"We understand the President's guidance," said Defense Department chief spokeswoman Dana White. "Our Policy Board will begin working on this issue, which has implications for intelligence operations for the Air Force, Army, Marines and Navy. Working with Congress, this will be a deliberate process with a great deal of input from multiple stakeholders."

During a National Space Council meeting at the White House, Trump verbally directed the Pentagon to create a sixth military service to oversee missions and operations in the space domain.

"We must have American dominance in space," Trump said during a speech at the White House Monday morning.

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But it may be years before such a force is fully established.

Two experts who spoke with Military.com said a U.S. space force will not come into being without at least a few growing pains as the policy, infrastructure and personnel details are drawn up in coming months.

Establishing a new force requires congressional sign-off, said Todd Harrison, director of the Aerospace Security Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

But the creation of a new military service is not a small enough policy change that lawmakers could simply slip the measure into an annual budget request.

"This is major legislation. It is going to take years. I don't think Congress will get around to authorizing it until next year at the earliest," Harrison said in an interview on Monday.

Despite the need for new policy, the creation of the space force may not have a huge impact on the annual budget request, Harrison said. That’s because the Defense Department will likely leverage personnel and capabilities it already has, he said.

"You're taking existing people, infrastructure. There will be some expense of new overhead and headquarters. It doesn't have to be hugely expensive," he said.

But, he added, the proposition could be made expensive.

Should the activation of a new space force also require an accompanying service academy like the U.S. Military Academy at West Point or the Air Force Academy, then the "accoutrements add up," Harrison said.

Harrison said Trump's move aims to close a critical personnel shortfall the Pentagon hasn't addressed since then-President Barack Obama in 2011 enacted the National Security Space Strategy.

The Air Force, Harrison argued, doesn't have the manpower to staff a dedicated space corps with the capabilities that leaders want.

"The most compelling justification for an independent service for space is on the personnel side," he said. "A grooming of a space cadre of space professionals ... that's where the Air Force has not offered much in the way of reform," he said.

"We have people in the other domains: landpower, maritime and air," he said, adding the Air Force's efforts to create adequate, skilled experts in this domain have come up short.

At this time, there are too many unknowns regarding the new space force, said Brian Weeden, the director of program planning for the Secure World Foundation (SWF).

Weeden, the head of space policy and security at SWF, said Trump might know something the public doesn't.

The Pentagon has been working to deliver an interim report to Congress by August on whether it's feasible to carve out a separate Space Force branch from the U.S. Air Force.

"Maybe Trump got a preview of the study and where it might be headed, and that's what he went off of," Weeden said.

Or, he said, Trump "has been briefed on this issue and he just decided that he likes it and wants to see it happen."

Still, Weeden questioned why one service, the Air Force, needs to own the space mission.

"The big question: Is it joint or not?" he said. "The effort needs to be on stronger integration, and providing better capabilities to the warfighters here on earth."

For example, Weeden said, there is a small minority of leaders within the Pentagon advocating for bigger programs such as anti-satellite weapons, missile detection capability or space-based solar power. Weeden argued leaders should perfect the capabilities such as GPS, which soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines use daily, before they move onto bigger and better things.

"The better support to the warfighter is going to get lost in the noise" if the vocal minority pushes for bigger programs first, he said.

"Renewed space threats are driving this -- Russia and China," he said. "This is what reignited this in 2016, and the concern was the Air Force wasn't moving fast enough."

But the biggest winners if a space force happens? Contractors, Harrison said.

"The number of personnel will be significantly smaller than, say, the Marine Corps," Harrison said.

Anywhere from 15,000 to 20,000 personnel could be added to the space force, augmented by a force of contractors and civilians that may be double that number.

"That's where the experts are," Harrison said.

Still, Harrison also didn't rule out the possibility that a space force may not happen after all.

"There is an absolute possibility this can get shot down again," he said.

Last year, Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Alabama, and Rep. William "Mac" Thornberry, R-Texas, first created language in the fiscal 2018 National Defense Authorization Act which would have required the service to stand up a "U.S. Space Corps." Lawmakers ultimately removed language requiring such an overhaul of the Air Force's mission.

"If this gets shot down, it will get shot down in the Senate," Harrison said. "But I think it also raises the odds it makes it through the Senate."

He added that lawmakers will hold such sway because with the Commander in Chief advocating for a space force, Air Force leadership can no longer speak publicly in opposition of it.

"I don't see how the Air Force is going to be able to resist this," Harrison said. "The idea passed the full House last year. The resistance in the Senate was largely backstopped by the Air Force.

"[But] how can [Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson] be out there publicly resisting when our own President says, 'I want a Space Force?'" he said.

-- Oriana Pawlyk can be reached at oriana.pawlyk@military.com. Follow her on Twitter at @oriana0214.

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