Will America get the sixth branch of the military it deserves? The decision now rests with just four senators: Sens. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), Jack Reed (D-R.I.), Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) and Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.). The stakes are huge both for American national security and the economic destiny of key U.S. states.
Space Force is not a partisan issue. The idea, first suggested by the 2001 Rumsfeld Commission, emerged from a bipartisan House in 2017 in response to significant threats to our infrastructure and an ossified and federated bureaucracy incapable of reacting to emerging threats from China and Russia. America has already lost two years due to political litigation in Congress and Pentagon resistance.
The House and Senate have passed different bills so they must be reconciled by a conference committee. Simply put, the House bill does the job, and the Senate version is wholly inadequate to protect American power and interests in space.
The deliberations of the committee are secret, but in this case, accountability for success or failure will be clear: with the president and Pentagon on board and the House fully on board, any failure to establish an independent Space Force in law will rest squarely on the shoulders of the senators on the conference committee.
And that’s a dangerous place to be. Nobody wants to be on record as having been the one who “lost space” and enabled a “red moon.”
If anything happens after November related to space that alarms the American people, the question to Inhofe, Reed, Shelby and Leahy, will be: Why didn’t you act when you had the chance?
It’s becoming very clear that we are in a serious space race with China, and Beijing has begun a bold strategic initiative. When it becomes clear to the American people they are behind, they will ask why we weren’t better prepared.
Those interests are vast. NASA is pursuing a plan to first industrialize low-Earth orbit (LEO) and then the moon, and its Administrator, Jim BridenstineJames (Jim) Frederick BridenstineSpaceX all-civilian crew returns to Earth, successfully completing 3-day mission SpaceX all-civilian crew calls Tom Cruise from space How will Biden's Afghanistan debacle impact NASA's Artemis return to the moon? MORE, who supports a Space Force has called for a need to be able to project power throughout the Cis-lunar system and protect commerce.
Various estimates suggest the space economy will grow three to eight-fold in the next few decades, to as much as $2.7 trillion — making space an exceedingly lucrative venture. Just this week, the Air Force Space Command released a report claiming by 2060 “space will be a significant engine of national political, economic, and military power” and that “the U.S. must commit to having a military force structure that can defend this international space order and defend American space interests, to include American space settlements and commerce.”
If stability can be brought, it will mean huge economic windfalls for America generally, as well as for aerospace states like Alabama, Texas, Oklahoma, California, Florida, Colorado, Virginia, New Mexico, Alaska and Hawaii. Those jobs and development opportunities clearly matter to many key senators.
The Senate is rightly concerned about controlling costs and keeping bureaucracies small and agile. However, this could turn out to be penny wise and pound foolish, costing billions in future revenues and thousands of jobs and seriously harming prospects for SpaceX, Blue Origin, ULA, Boeing, Lockheed, Northrop Grumman and hundreds of others.
Moreover, both authorizers and appropriators can be assured that the most important provisions to get right are cost-free.
First, the minimum useful criteria of the bill must be that the Space Force (or whatever it shall be called) is actually and independent sixth service as established by law — as Acting Secretary of the Air Force Matt Donovan has urged. Once the Space Force is a separate entity, it will be far easier for the Congress to control both its direction and ensure that its funding is accountable.
Far more important than resourcing, however, is standing. Only making it a sixth service ensures that the Space Force will have equal standing as the other branches and the ability to compete for resources from Congress directly and on level footing. Only a sixth service truly maximizes comprehensive U.S. spacepower.
Second, Congress must ensure this new service has a mission to protect commerce. The narrow “warfighting” talk of the Pentagon is missing the larger picture of structuring a strategic domain. What we need is a service closer to a space “navy” with a daily presence mission of protecting commerce, rather than a space “air force” narrowly focused on weapons and preparation for war. Specifying the defense of commerce mission is essential to unlocking the command’s potential, building the right culture, and ensuring the full support of our industry, allies, and citizen space groups.
A third consideration is that a failure to give the secretary of Defense transfer authority undermines the strategic intent of Congress, allowing entrenched interests in the services to resist consolidation where it makes sense.
Now is the time to act. The national mood is one of excitement about space. A majority of military officers favor a dedicated space service. The concept of a Space Force emerged in a bipartisan fashion, and it has the support of major industrial magnates. It has now even garnered the endorsement of the Washington Post. What remains is for a handful of key lawmakers to give it life, and do so in a form that would bring enormous dividends to the country.
Peter Garretson is an independent strategy consultant who focuses on space and defense. He was previously the director of Air University’s Space Horizons Task Force, America’s think tank for space, and was deputy director of America’s premier space strategy program, the Schriever Scholars. All views are his own.