Congress will not create a new branch of the military dedicated to space this year, but lawmakers who support the move and defense experts say it’s only a matter of time.
The annual defense policy bill passed by Congress this week punted on what would have been the biggest change to the Pentagon since the last time a new military branch was created in 1947.
But the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) does make several changes that lay the groundwork for the so-called Space Corps to become a reality in the near future.
“This issue is not dead at all. Congress laid the ground work for this to come back up in future years,” said Todd Harrison, defense budget analyst and director of the Aerospace Security Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “I think [Space Corps] is inevitable, as in within my lifetime.”
The House version of the NDAA would have created a separate branch of the military dedicated to space known as Space Corps. Though the concept elicited jokes about galactic battles against aliens, lawmakers were eyeing more familiar, terrestrial threats, namely Russia and China.
Advocates for reorganizing the military’s space operations say the United States is lagging behind its adversaries in that area. Russia and China have already made moves to spin off their space operations into separate military branches.
But the White House, Pentagon and the Senate fiercely opposed the Space Corps plan. They acknowledged the United States needs to do better in space, but said creating a new military branch would be premature and could just add more bureaucracy that ultimately hinders the military’s space operations.
To that end, the Senate inserted an amendment into its version of the NDAA that would have banned Space Corps.
The House and Senate compromise version passed this week and awaiting President Trump’s expected signature instead requires the deputy secretary of Defense to contract a federally funded research and development corporation not associated with the Air Force to study the possibility of creating a space military branch in the future.
The bill also eliminates several positions in the Air Force and Pentagon that lawmakers said added unneeded layers of bureaucracy. And it gives Air Force Space Command sole authority for organizing, training and equipping all space forces within the Air Force.
Reps. Mike RogersMichael (Mike) Dennis RogersWashington's playing with a weak hand in the Ukraine crisis House GOP members introduce legislation targeting Russia over Ukraine Corporations seek to rebuild bridges with GOP objectors ahead of midterms MORE (R-Ala.) and Jim CooperJim CooperCooper becomes latest House Democrat to not seek reelection The Hill's Morning Report - Biden, NATO eye 'all scenarios' with Russia Five Democrats the left plans to target MORE (D-Tenn.), the chief architects of the Space Corps proposal in the House, framed the compromise as a first step toward eventually achieving their goal, saying in a joint statement after the bill’s release that they will not allow a “space Pearl Harbor.” Rogers and Cooper are the chairman and ranking member, respectively, of the Armed Services strategic forces subcommittee.
“Hopefully over the coming year the Senate will focus on the chronic problems facing national security space and work with us to establish a separate Space Corps,” Rogers said on the House floor this week.
“This defense authorization bill takes a decisive first step to address the fragmentation and lack of focus on national security space issues that the Air Force has shown by reorganizing space within the Air Force and within the Department of Defense,” added Cooper.
The most consequential move the NDAA makes toward eventually setting up a space branch is the independent study, Harrison said. And the study would actually go further than the original Space Corps plan as it is supposed to provide “a plan to establish a separate military department,” according to the bill.
Space Corps would not have been its own military department; it would have been housed under the Department of the Air Force like the Marine Corps is housed under the Department of the Navy.
The bill requires an interim report by Aug. 1 and a final report by Dec. 31, 2018. That means the earliest the roadmap could be put into legislation would be the fiscal 2020 NDAA, Harrison said.
“This is not something that’s going to happen quickly,” he said. “It can’t and shouldn’t happen quickly. Before you have a Space Corps, you need to have a real space cadre.”
Harrison pointed to another aspect of the NDAA, the new authorities given to Air Force Space Command, which he says will help create that cadre.
“If Space Command does what Congress wants it to do, that will eventually create the nucleus that will become an independent branch,” he said.
John “JV” Venable, a retired Air Force pilot with the Heritage Foundation, agreed that a major reorganization to the Pentagon to improve space operations is inevitable, though he does not think Space Corps is the answer.
“Anybody who thought that if we get a Space Corps, space is going to be fixed was only fooling themselves,” he said.
Rather, he believes the solution must come at the secretary of Defense-level so that there is the authority to control and integrate the various agencies, organizations and other moving parts that have a hand in space.
That would need to be a slow process, though, because as important as space is, the military first needs to address its conventional readiness shortfalls, said Venable.
In the meantime, though, the Pentagon can and should make more moves to protect U.S. space assets such as satellites that Russia and China can attack, he said.
“We need to move right away into starting to shift to protect space assets,” he said.
“I don’t know about classified, but in the overt, open-air world we’ve not started down that path at all, and we already have people who have weaponized space.”