WASHINGTON — In its portion of the 2019 defense policy bill, the House Armed Services’ Strategic Forces Subcommittee is proposing a new U.S. Space Command in lieu of a separate space service.
But the fight over a Space Corps isn’t over just yet.
Reps. Mike Rogers, R-Ala., and Jim Cooper, D-Tenn., the top lawmakers on the committee and leading proponents of establishing a separate Space Corps, remain convinced an independent space service is the best course of action.
However, they want to wait for a Defense Department assessment on how to optimize the military’s space enterprise before charging forward on a Space Corps, a House Armed Services Committee aide told reporters during a Wednesday background briefing.
“I don’t think that the members are backing off on this. I think President Trump has come out and said that he has endorsed an independent space force. I think our members are still focused on that,” the staffer said. “I think our members also realize that nothing happens overnight.”
President Donald Trump in March gave remarks at Marine Air Station Miramar in California, during which he appeared to support the establishment of a space war-fighting service.
“I was saying it the other day — because we are doing a tremendous amount of work in space — I said: ‘Maybe we need a new force,’ ” Trump said then. “We’ll call it ‘Space Force.’ And I was not really serious. Then I said: ‘What a great idea.’ Maybe we’ll have to do that. That could happen.”
Although it’s possible Trump may have been tailoring to his audience and inadvertently inserting himself into a wonky political fight, his comments have been taken by Rogers and other lawmakers as the president’s explicit approval.
The Strategic Forces Subcommittee’s portion of the fiscal 2019 defense authorization bill, released Wednesday, takes some “foundational steps” that could pave the way for a Space Corps, or at least better position it for the task of fighting a war in space, the HASC staffer said.
It includes language that would create a new subordinate unified command called U.S. Space Command, which would be led by a four-star and reside under U.S. Strategic Command.
All active and reserve military space personnel would fall under the new organization, including the “numbered Air Force responsible for conducting space warfighting operations,” meaning the wings, squadrons and groups subordinate to a major command.
Unlike the service-specific Air Force Space Command, a U.S. Space Command would oversee requirements generation, training, tactics, strategy development and doctrine for all branches of the military.
The commander would be responsible “ensuring the combat readiness of forces assigned to the space command,” the bill stated.
Additionally, the Air Force was tasked with creating a new numbered Air Force organization that would be responsible for space war-fighting operations and assigned to U.S. Space Command.
The subcommittee included several other provisions related to speeding up acquisition of space technologies and space personnel matters. It requires the deputy defense secretary to submit a report on an alternative space acquisition system by the end of 2019.
The Air Force must also develop a plan to “increase the number and improve the quality of the space cadre of the Air Force,” to be delivered to Congress by March 1. For that study, the service will evaluate whether to create new space-oriented career fields, as well as the pay, incentives and management of space forces.
The Strategic Forces Subcommittee putting forward its portion of the National Defense Authorization Act is the first step in a lengthy process. The language will be debated and marked up, first by the full subcommittee, then by all of HASC and then in the House chamber. From there, it will move onto conference, where House and Senate leaders will define the final bill before both chambers vote on it again.
At any point during this process, provisions could be amended or stripped from the bill — as was the case for the Space Corps proposal in the FY18 NDAA.
That year, the effort was batted back by a number of lawmakers in the Senate and House who said they needed more information on whether a new space service was the correct course of action. Instead, the Pentagon was tasked with studying the proposal.
Deputy Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan told reporters Tuesday that the report on whether to establish a Space Corps could be headed to Congress as early as August, with an interim report possible in June.
“The Air Force has been very, very responsive. This hasn’t been something where they’ve been pushing back on,” he said. “I think, quite frankly, that I like the challenge the chairman has given to us. I think we’ll come up with a good answer.”
Shanahan added that his personal opinion was that the creation of an independent space force doesn’t need to happen at this point, “but I think we need to finish the study and stare hard into the facts.”
Air Force leaders also appear to have taken a more moderated stance on the Space Corps proposal in recent months, although that may be due to fear of being seen as at odds with the president.
On Tuesday, Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson told senators that she was “open” to different ways of organizing a space force — a softening of her previous position that Congress meddling in the Air Force’s space organization could have a detrimental effect.
“I think the most important thing is not the organization, but what we actually do, and that is to defend ourselves on orbit and make clear to any adversary that, if they take us on in space, we will prevail,” she said.
Aaron Mehta contributed to this report.
Valerie Insinna was Defense News' air warfare reporter. Beforehand, she worked the Navy and congressional beats for Defense Daily, which followed almost three years as a staff writer for National Defense Magazine. Prior to that, she worked as an editorial assistant for the Tokyo Shimbun’s Washington bureau.