Six Down To Earth Questions We Have About Trump’s Space Force

President Donald Trump has directed the Pentagon to set up a dedicated Space Force as an independent, sixth branch of the U.S. military. It’s a move that reflects the growing importance of American assets in space to any future operations and the subsequent need to be able to protect them from any kind of threat, but a significant number of questions about how the U.S. military will implement this order remain unanswered.

You can read more about the growing importance of space to the U.S. military and the security implications here. You can also find in-depth primer on the push for an independent Space Force here.

Trump made the announcement about the potential new service in a meeting of the National Space Council on June 18, 2018. This follows remarks he made at Marine Corps Air Station Miramar, situated near San Diego, California, in March 2018, in which he said his administration had plans to establish the Space Force.

Here is the core of Trump’s remarks from the National Space Council meeting regarding the future Space Force:

“I’m here by directing the Department of Defense and Pentagon to immediately begin the process necessary to establish a space force as the sixth branch of the armed forces. That’s a big statement.

We are going to have the Air Force and we are going to have the Space Force — separate but equal.  It is going to be something. So important. General Dunford, if you would carry that assignment out, I would be very greatly honored, also. Where’s General Dunford?  General?  Got it?”

U.S. Marine Corps General Joseph Dunford, the present Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the U.S. military’s top uniformed officer, was at the gathering. “We got it,” he told Trump in response to his question.

Since at least July 2017, the Pentagon has been actively reviewing its options about whether it is prudent to establish a new service, a new functional combatant command along the lines of U.S. Special Operations Command, or some other revised organizational and command structure to address existing and future challenges in space. After Trump’s remarks, the Pentagon’s top spokesperson Dana White implied that the U.S. military would continue to study the issue before implementing anything.

But these are the major questions we have when it comes to how the U.S. military would about setting up a Space Force.

Can the president actually do this?

The most immediate and perhaps most important question is can the president of the United States legally order the U.S. military to create an independent branch without the expressed consent of Congress? Legislators were responsible for establishing the U.S. Air Force in 1947, through the National Security Act, which is the last time the U.S. military added an entirely new service.

Even if Trump has the authority to order the Pentagon to form the Space Force, Congress will be the ones to decide how to fund its activities and, in doing so, could mandate specific requirements, such as a specific organizational structure or primary mission. They could also effectively block the new service by refusing to give it any money at all.

The Space Force does have vocal advocates in Congress, primarily Mike Rogers, a Republic representative from Alabama, and Jim Cooper, a Democrat representing Tennessee. But it also has opponents, representing opposition from the Pentagon itself, who succeeded in stripping out a provision in the 2018 National Defense Authorization Act, the formal title for the annual defense budget, that would have forced the Pentagon to create the branch already. Instead, lawmakers required the U.S. military to study the issue, which they are doing now. 

What kind of ‘independent’ service?

As it stands now, there are two distinct kinds of independent service in the U.S. military, ones that have their own department within the larger Department of Defense and others that answer to someone else. There are Departments of the Army, Navy, and Air Force. The Marine Corps exists under the Department of the Navy. The Coast Guard occupies a unique and obtuse arrangement under which it is subordinate to the Department of Homeland Security, but can become part of the Department of the Navy by order of Congress or the President. 

The arrangement that Representatives Rogers and Cooper proposed in the defense budget for the 2018 fiscal year would have formed the Space Force under the Department of the Air Force. However, after getting pushback from that service, Rogers threatened to propose a new structure that would make the additional branch entirely separate.

Either structure would create a new Chief of the Space Force who would sit on the Joint Chiefs of Staff and act as the primary advocate and subject matter on space issues. But since space-based assets, such as satellite communications and GPS, are so heavily intertwined throughout all of the services, it’s not clear how that individual would be able to make any major decisions and enact policy without direct, constant coordination with the other branches.

A mobile antenna that is part of one of the Air Force’s Eagle Vision systems, which forces in the field to rapidly download satellite imagery and other information, even in austere locations., USAF

What will its mission be?

Though it may seem obvious, deciding on the primary mission of the Space Force is likely to be a significant issue, both inside the United States and internationally. The immediate goal that its advocates have stated is to create a central manager for U.S. military space policy and procurement issues to help streamline the process of establishing priorities and requirements and buying systems to meet those needs.

There has been no real discussion so far about whether or not the service will have an implicit or explicit mission to conduct combat activities of any kind in outer space. This is unlikely, at least any time in the near future, to involve something out of a science fiction movie like transport spacecraft carrying “space marines.”

This 1960s concept art of American troops in space suits fighting an unseen enemy on the Moon is exactly the kind of thing a future Space Force won’t be doing., US Army

Beyond just the possibility that an opponent could use a ground-based missile to shoot down satellites, there is the increasingly real possibility that unmanned, semi-autonomous or autonomous spacecraft could launch physical attacks on other objects outside the Earth’s atmosphere. International law hasn’t really caught up with this reality, either, especially given that there are satellites in orbit that country’s don’t even acknowledge exist.

The video below offers a good primer about the issues the U.S. military is increasingly facing in space.

“It’s really difficult to go ahead and justify how you might attack somebody’s homeland if they’ve taken out a satellite that you don’t even admit exists,” Douglas Loverro, who was Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Space Policy at the time, said at a gathering at the Air Force Association’s Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies in October 2016. “Probably people are going to die on the ground where nobody’s going to die in space.”

If it even looks as if the United States might be preparing for an active conflict in space by establishing a Space Force, it could prompt other nations to follow suit or accelerate pre-existing efforts. The result could be a further destabilizing space arms race or simply increase the potential for accidents to end up looking like hostile action, which could have disastrous consequences.

A photograph showing an apparent Chinese military test of an anti-ballistic missile system, which the US government believes are a cover for anti-satellite weapons developments., via Weibo

Who’s budget?

The previous question has immense significance when it comes to the defense budget. The Marine Corps’ budget is presently included within the Navy’s budget. If the Space Force ended up as part of the Department of the Air Force, it would likely lead to a similar arrangement.

The problem here is that the Space Force’s proponents argue that the Air Force doesn’t make space issues enough of a priority in its budgets, which is the main reason for creating the Space Force at all. Letting that service have the final say over its new cousin’s budget runs the inherent risk of leaving things largely unchanged. 

In addition to the possibility of inter-service squabbles there over the allocation of funds, the Air Force and Space Force would be in the position of having to argue together for an increased share of the overall budget. This might not be the same issue for the Trump administration as it was for past administrations since the president has pledged to continue expanding spending as a whole.

President Trump signs the 2018 National Defense Authorization Act into law in December 2017., DOD

Who’s personnel and assets?

When the U.S. military created the independent U.S. Air Force in 1947, the U.S. Army Air Forces had been operating largely independently already. There were still significant issues in separating logistics, administrative, and other elements that took years to fully resolve and the two services have repeatedly spared since then over their respective roles and missions.

If the U.S. military were to create a new Space Force is would not do so from scratch and it could lead to a bitter fight over who gets to control what units, assets, and other resources. The Air Force has the most to lose in any such arrangement since it operates the bulk of the U.S. military’s existing relevant ground and space-based infrastructure, including satellites and space vehicle launch sites, as well as largely directing the U.S. military’s space policy, via Air Force Space Command (AFSPC). 

Vice President Mike Pence sits at a workstation during a tour of Schriever Air Force Base, home of the US Air Force’s 50th Space Wing., USAF

It is also especially active in the “aerospace” domain, working on spaceplanes such as the secretive X-37B and potentially other space-based capabilities we don’t yet know about. There’s also just the matter of where the Space Force’s units would operate from, which could lead to them sharing or outright taking over certain bases from the Air Force. Moving those functions to other locations could devastate the surrounding economies and impact operations, too.

The other branches are likely to be reticent to give up their own space-focused components – U.S. Army Space and Missile Defense Command (SMDC), Naval Network and Space Operations Command (NNSOC), Space and Naval Warfare Systems Command (SPAWAR), and U.S. Marine Corps Forces Strategic Command (MARFORSTRAT) – in part or in full. We don’t know how this might impact the activities of U.S. Strategic Command or the U.S. Missile Defense Agency, both of which rely heavily on space-based assets to watch for enemy attacks. There is also still a potential in the future for a space-based layer to the United States’ ballistic missile defense shield that could actively engage incoming threats.

The X-37B spaceplane., USAF

The proposal that Rogers and Cooper put forward also said that their concept for a Space Force would have no impact on the operation the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO), the U.S. Intelligence Community’s central satellite intelligence component, or the National Geo-Spatial Intelligence Agency (NGA), the Pentagon’s main map-making division, but it is hard to see how this could be the case.

Both of those services work very closely with AFSPC and it would be easy for their missions to overlap with a newly expanded and empowered space-focused service. This past idea for a space military branch also did not specify how this might affect other space-based intelligence activities under the National Security Agency or Central Intelligence Agency. We have already seen the immense difficulties in separating military and intelligence roles and missions when it has come to the creation of an independent U.S. Cyber Command within the Pentagon.

The video below shows the Air Force’s Space-Based Infrared System (SBIRS) early warning satellite constellation in action, which watches for potential hostile missile launches, but also performs an important strategic intelligence-gathering function.

Space Force or Space Corps?

“The Army has doctrine, the Navy has tradition, and the Air Force is new,” is something an old mentor of mine was particularly fond of saying. It’s a statement that is immediately up for debate, but the last point will be as much of an issue for any Space Force as it has been for the Air Force over the years.

The new branch will get the unusual opportunity to choose what doctrine and traditions it carries over from its sister services as it works to establish its own. The most immediate of these questions will be what rank structure to adopt.  Will it be a “Space Force” that draws inspiration from the Army and the Air Force or a “Space Corps” that takes a nod from the Navy and the Marine Corps? Science fiction is particularly fond of treating space-faring forces as “navies” with captains and commanders overseeing “ships” in a “fleet.”

There will be similar questions about uniform styles and other symbols. Each existing U.S. military service has distinct styles of both working and dress uniforms to help differentiate the branches and give their members a sense of pride in their particular organization. When it comes to choosing new uniform styles and colors, though, the U.S. military’s own history is already replete with costly debacles

Starship Troopers—Touchstone Pictures

While these are hardly the most pressing of questions when it comes to the new branch, it is likely to be an important considering if the service actually comes into existence. Naming conventions, heraldry, and other aspects of the pomp and ceremony that surround the U.S. military are often as hotly debated as actual policy and procurement decisions. 

Trump and his administration will have to answer these questions, and no doubt many more, if the Space Force is supposed to go from the realm of science fiction to reality.

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Joseph Trevithick Avatar

Joseph Trevithick

Deputy Editor

Joseph has been a member of The War Zone team since early 2017. Prior to that, he was an Associate Editor at War Is Boring, and his byline has appeared in other publications, including Small Arms Review, Small Arms Defense Journal, Reuters, We Are the Mighty, and Task & Purpose.