Vice President Mike Pence addressed the Pentagon on Thursday, laying out the case, and the timeline, President Trump’s administration is setting for the establishment of a space-specific branch of the U.S. military. President Trump first directed the establishment of a Space Force in March, though the concept of placing orbital defenses in the hands of a sixth military branch has been alive in Washington D.C. for some time prior, including its inclusion in last year’s congressional defense budget proposal. It was ultimately tabled when that budget was merged with the Senate’s proposal, however.
The Vice President first made it clear that the United States is not seeking to be the first nation to “militarize space” as some have contended. Space, as Pence pointed out, is already being militarized by national level opponents like Russia and China. The United States, then, is left with two options: compete in this developing battlespace or be left at a significant disadvantage.
“As their actions make clear, our adversaries have transformed space into a warfighting domain already, and the United States will not shrink from this challenge,” Pence said. “Under President Trump’s leadership, we will meet it head on — to defend our nation, and build a peaceful future here on Earth and in space.”
Of course, establishing a new branch is no small undertaking, which has served as the primary argument against President Trump’s Space Force from within the Pentagon. No defense officials have contested that there is no need for an orbital defense undertaking. Instead, many have argued that the effort is best left under the Air Force’s purview, as it is now. Criticism of a space branch levied by Defense Secretary James Mattis and others in the past have all been regarding the administrative and logistical expenses associated with the establishment of any new branch, not with its intended responsibilities. Mattis has still been reluctant to voice approval for this new branch, but recently told reporters that the Pentagon is in “complete agreement” with the White House regarding how to move forward.
“President Trump and I are grateful to Secretary Mattis for this department’s diligence in preparing this report, and our administration will soon take action to implement these recommendations, with the objective of establishing the United States Department of the Space Force by 2020,” Pence told the crowd at the Pentagon.
“Creating a new branch of the military is not a simple process. It will require collaboration, diligence, and above all leadership. As challenges arise and deadlines approach, there must be someone in charge who can execute, hold others accountable, and be responsible for the results.”
Pence also attempted to assuage concerns about the immense cost of establishing the new force, saying, “To be clear, the Space Force will not be built from scratch, because the men and women who run and protect our nation’s space programs today are already the best in the world,” he said.
Some of the specific elements of this new Space Force initiative Pence outlined included a new unified combat and command structure devoted to space and led by a four-star level flag officer, a Space Operations Force comprised of warfighters with specialized skills and training to suit the threats posed in orbit, a “Space Development Agency” tasked with helping the Space Force develop new capabilities, and a new Assistant Secretary of Defense role established to help make the transition go smoothly.
For now, it seems likely that the effort to defend America’s assets in space will remain in the hands of the Air Force throughout the interim, which has drawn criticisms from lawmakers that support the establishment of a Space Force specifically to prevent the Air Force from using space-dedicated funds to pay for ongoing combat operations and aircraft development programs with no space-specific value. The Air Force, many have argued, is currently amidst ongoing combat operations in multiple theaters, and as such, will always prioritize today’s mission over tomorrow’s threats.
The Air Force has had plenty of time to know this had to be done. If they could make themselves do it, they would have.” Rogers told the press in May. “Unfortunately, because space is one of the 11 other missions they have, it is always going to be subordinate, but worse it’s going to be a pay-for, which is what’s happened over these years. We’ve seen repeatedly where the Air Force has reached into space program funds to put them against fighter jets, bombers, tankers. That has exacerbated this already bad problem that we have with space.”
Ultimately, as Pence pointed out, the establishment of the new branch will be left up to Congress, but it’s clear that the wheels are already in motion.
Featured image: Vice President Mike Pence speaks during an event on the creation of a United States Space Force, Thursday, Aug. 9, 2018, at the Pentagon. Pence says the time has come to establish the new United States Space Force to ensure America’s dominance in space amid heightened completion and threats from China and Russia. | AP Photo/Evan Vucci