Obstacles to Trump’s ‘Space Force’ could keep proposal grounded for now

President Trump’s proposal this week for a “Space Force” is already facing obstacles in Congress and at the Pentagon — two places where he’ll need broad support to get his initiative off the ground.

Trump surprised lawmakers and military officials on Monday when he directed the Defense Department to create a Space Force as its sixth military service branch. On Capitol Hill, the president faces the difficult task of garnering congressional backing for his plan, with several key lawmakers voicing skepticism over the idea.

“I think it’s somebody wanting to have something new that they can talk about,” Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said of Trump’s plan.

Nelson, who led last year’s effort to kill a House proposal to establish a space corps within the Air Force, said the new branch “would cost so much money, it would be so duplicative.” He added that Air Force officials also don’t want the move, but “they are now muzzled” by the administration from speaking out against it.

Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), the senior member of the Armed Services panel, told The Hill he’s reluctant to back a separate Space Force.

“That’s a serious subject. It’s one that I would have a hard time supporting,” Inhofe said. “All of our branches have the space element and it’s working. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

He added that he’s “not sure how serious” Trump was when he made the announcement.

Trump’s proposal left many questions unanswered, including whether he intended the military arm to stand on its own or whether it would fall under the Air Force, much like the Marine Corps is part of the Department of the Navy. He also didn’t include a timeline for the initiative.

The plan is also seen as a 180-degree turn from the White House’s position last year, when it opposed the House plan to create a space corps under the Air Force, saying it was “premature at this time.”

Now the commander in chief will need help from lawmakers, who must decide whether to amend Title 10 of the United States Code to allow for the creation of a new military service.

Both the House and the Senate have completed their versions of the annual defense policy bill, with little room for a Space Force provision to be added when lawmakers from both chambers reconcile the two measures during a conference committee.

That means Trump’s first major roadblock is timing, according to Todd Harrison, a congressional and aerospace expert with the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

“Technically it’s possible that they could insert this during conference, but this is a major legislative proposal,” Harrison said. “I think it’s very doubtful that they would try to take this up in conference committee.”

Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska), a member of the Armed Services Committee, said it would be “a heavy lift” to drop the space issue into a conference report.

“My view is we’re trying to rebuild the military, the five services,” Sullivan said. “That’s my focus right now.”

In addition, the Defense Department is due to give Congress a roadmap in August for how it would create a separate department for space — a provision inserted in the fiscal 2018 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA).

“It makes logical sense to wait for that before they move forward,” Harrison said.

Timing-wise, that would leave next year’s NDAA as the next opportunity for Congress to tackle the issue. But even then, creating a Space Force “will probably take at least another two or three years, minimum,” Harrison said, noting the timely legislative process that would need to be followed by an implementation period.

The Pentagon also appears hesitant to act quickly on Trump’s directive.

After his announcement, the Pentagon released a statement indicating the process would take some time.

“Our policy board will begin working on this issue, which has implications for intelligence operations for the Air Force, Army, Marines and Navy,” chief Pentagon spokeswoman Dana White said. “Working with Congress, this will be a deliberate process with a great deal of input from multiple stakeholders.”

Defense Secretary James Mattis on Wednesday said that Trump’s proposal will require work with Congress that has not yet started.

“This, as you know, is going to require legislation and a lot of detailed planning, and we’ve not yet begun,” Mattis told reporters outside the Pentagon. “We’ve clearly got to start the process.”

He said the Space Force is among the issues Pentagon leaders will bring up on Friday when they meet with national security adviser John Bolton.

Air Force leaders, meanwhile, seem hesitant to fully embrace the proposal. Last year they warned that it would be premature and create burdensome bureaucracy to separate a space component from the rest of the service.

On Tuesday, Air Force officials released a memo to personnel saying not to expect any immediate changes following Trump’s announcement.

“This work directed by the President will be a thorough, deliberate, and inclusive process,” according to the memo, signed by Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson, Chief of Staff David Goldfein and Chief Master Sergeant Kaleth Wright. “As such, we should not expect any immediate moves or changes. Our focus must remain on the mission as we continue to accelerate the space warfighting capabilities required to support the National Defense Strategy.”

Still, some lawmakers support a separate space arm, as long as it remains under the Air Force.

House Armed Services Committee ranking member Adam Smith (D-Wash.) said he supported last year’s efforts by Reps. Mike Rogers (R-Ala.) and Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.) to establish a space corps within the Air Force, and said he would support them again.

“I’m open to it,” Smith said, while noting that “we’ve still got to work with the Senate.”

Harrison predicted some of the resistance in the Senate may diminish now that the Air Force has been directed to get on board with Trump’s plan.

“There’s been more passive resistance, until now, by the Air Force going over to the Hill and telling people, ‘We don’t need this, we don’t want it, it’s a bad idea,’” Harrison said. “Now that the Air Force can’t really do that anymore, it’d be interesting to see if some of that resistance in the Senate starts to fade away.”

But there are still those who don’t seem likely to change their hard-line stance. When asked if he believes that legislation for a Space Force would go through next year, Nelson replied, “Not if I have anything to do with it.”

Tags Adam Smith Bill Nelson Dan Sullivan Donald Trump James Mattis Jim Cooper Jim Inhofe Mike Rogers
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