A contingent of lawmakers is worried the United States isn’t keeping pace with its adversaries when it comes to outer space.
Their solution: A new branch of the military dedicated solely to space.
“National security space can no longer be treated as a pay-for,” Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Ala.), chairman of the Armed Services Committee’s strategic forces subcommittee, said this week. “We have very real risks to Russia and China in space, and warfighting has become absolutely dependent on space.”
The House moved forward with its plans to create a Space Corps this week when it passed its version of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA).
But the proposal faces a long road before becoming reality. The administration, including Defense Secretary James Mattis, has come out strongly against the idea. And there’s no equivalent proposal in the Senate, meaning the provision could be stripped out before the bill’s final passage.
While the Space Corps sounds like it would deploy a squadron to fight Martians, the new service would be focused on more familiar, terrestrial threats — namely, Russia and China.
It would be housed under the Department of the Air Force, similar to how the Marine Corps falls under the Department of the Navy.
The corps would have its own budget and its own chief of staff, who would join the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Its duties, as described by the NDAA, would be “protecting the interests of the United States in space; deterring aggression in, from, and through space; providing combat-ready space forces that enable the commanders of the combatant commands to fight and win wars; organizing, training, and equipping space forces; and conducting space operations of the Space Corps under the command of the Commander of the United States Space Command.”
Under the bill, the service would have to be up and running by January 1, 2019.
Proponents of the space service argue Russia and China have been outpacing the United States in space. Both countries have conducted anti-satellite missile tests demonstrating their ability to shoot a satellite out of space.
Satellites can also be tampered with by electronic jamming, lasers and cyber attacks, said Todd Harrison, defense budget analyst and director of the Aerospace Security Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. For example, hackers have a couple times taken control of NASA’s Terra EOS earth observation system satellite, and insurgents in the Middle East have electronically jammed U.S. satellites.
“We’re seeing attacks in space already,” Harrison said.
Despite that, proponent of the idea say, the military hasn’t been putting a focus on space. A Space Corps would force the military to change that, they argue.
The idea has bipartisan support, with the ranking member of the strategic forces subcommittee presenting a united front with Rogers.
“What we’re really talking about here is the risk of another 9/11 or another Pearl Harbor,” ranking member Rep. Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.) said this week. “We would be blinded, deafened and impotent before we knew what happened.”
Classified briefings on the subject have been “truly alarming,” he added.
The Senate version of the NDAA, meanwhile, takes more modest steps to reform the Pentagon’s approach to space. The Senate bill would require the commander of Air Force Space Command to serve a six-year term. It would also create a new position of chief information warfare officer to integrate Pentagon efforts on space, cyber and electronic warfare.
The idea for a Space Corps is hardly new. In 2001, then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld proposed the idea. But the so-called Rumsfeld Commission report that included the idea came just before 9/11, and so the idea was shelved.
But opponents of the latest proposal say this Congress has not done enough due diligence to justify such a big change.
Rep. Michael Turner (R-Ohio) has been leading the opposition, saying Congress needs to slow down and require the Pentagon to study the issue before requiring it to reorganize.
“Restructuring the bureaucracy to the grave extent of creating another service branch is extreme,” Turner told reporters this week. “For the House itself and for the enormity of this task, there's a lot more work that needs to be done for us as a body to deliberate and undertake this.”
Opponents have some heavyweights in their corner. The White House included the Space Corps in its list of gripes about the bill, calling the creation of the service “premature at this time.”
And Mattis penned a letter to Turner backing his position.
“I share congressional concerns about the organization and management of the department’s space capabilities,” Mattis wrote. “The creation of an independent Space Corps, with the corresponding institutional growth and budget implications, does not address the specific concerns nor our nation’s fiscal problems in a responsive manner.”
Turner also has a letter in hand from Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson backing his stance. Both she and Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein came out in opposition to the plan earlier at a Senate hearing, and she elaborated on her concerns in the letter.
“I agree with the House Armed Services Strategic Forces Sub-Committee that there are number of very real challenges regarding the nation’s ability to deter and ultimately prevail in a conflict that extends to space,” she wrote. “Nonetheless, I do not believe establishing a Space Corps is the right immediate course of action.
“Creation of a separate Space Corps at this time would create additional seams between the services, disrupt ongoing efforts to establish a warfighting culture and new capabilities, and require costly duplication of personnel and resources.”
Harrison, of CSIS, framed the creation of a Space Corps as inevitable. The issue, he said, is whether to do it now or later.
“The question for policy makers is — we recognize space is a warfighting domain, a contested warfighting domain,” he said, “so is it time to create a separate military service?”