Trump to direct creation of Space Force within the Air Force

President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump pushes back on recent polling data, says internal numbers are 'strongest we've had so far' Illinois state lawmaker apologizes for photos depicting mock assassination of Trump Scaramucci assembling team of former Cabinet members to speak out against Trump MORE signed a directive Tuesday to establish a "Space Force" as the newest branch of the military, but plans to keep it under the purview of the Air Force.

The new plan is less ambitious than the “separate but equal” military branch Trump first envisioned for the Space Force, but it is more likely to get the backing of Congress that it needs to become a reality.

“The president has directed the secretary of Defense to draft a legislative proposal that, if enacted, would establish the U.S. Space Force as the sixth branch of the Armed Forces within the Department of the Air Force,” a senior administration official told reporters Tuesday morning on a background call. “This is a step toward a future, separate military department for space.”

The president officially signed the directive Tuesday afternoon in the Oval Office. He was flanked by Vice President Pence, who led the planning for Space Force, and top Pentagon officials, including acting Defense Secretary Patrick ShanahanPatrick Michael ShanahanWhy Dave Norquist is the perfect choice for DOD's deputy secretary Five questions for Trump's new defense secretary on first major tour Trump says media is part of vetting his nominees: 'We save a lot of money that way' MORE, Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Paul Selva and Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson.

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"I think we'll have great support from Congress because they do support something when we're talking about such importance," Trump said before signing the directive. "The Space Force is a very important part of my administration, and it's a very important part of this nation."

Shanahan added that Tuesday was a "historic moment" as the "dawn of a new service."

"We will deliver capability better, sooner, faster so we can sustain our margin of dominance," Shanahan said in brief remarks at the signing.

Trump first called in June for the Pentagon to create Space Force as a separate branch of the military, followed in August by Pence outlining the administration’s plans for it to become the sixth branch of the military by 2020.

"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," Trump said last year.

But the idea landed with a thud on Capitol Hill.

The administration and lawmakers broadly agree the Pentagon needs to improve its operations in space to compete with Russia and China, but lawmakers in both parties questioned whether an entirely separate branch of the military is the most cost effective way to do so.

A widely leaked Air Force estimate in September placed the cost of standing up a Space Force at $13 billion over five years. Supporters of a Space Force argued the Air Force inflated the costs to drive opposition.

Putting the Space Force under the control of the Air Force is closer to a plan that passed the House on a bipartisan basis in 2017.

Under the directive to be signed Tuesday, the Space Force would have its own four-star general chief of staff who sits on the Joint Chiefs of Staff, but its top civilian would be a Senate-confirmed undersecretary for space within the Air Force.

All of the military and civilian personnel working on space in the Pentagon would be folded into the Space Force. Nonmilitary agencies that deal with space, including NASA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the National Reconnaissance Office, would remain separate.

Administration officials estimated the initial cost for Space Force headquarters will be less than $100 million with the exact cost to be included in this year’s budget request.

Other costs for the Space Force will include shifting over monies for existing military activities into the force’s budget, which has the possibility to grow over time as space operations do, the official said.

The official insisted Tuesday that the administration has not abandoned its goal for an entirely separate Space Force department. The directive to be signed by Trump calls for the Defense secretary to conduct “periodic reviews” on when to send Congress a second legislative proposal for a separate department.

“We haven’t abandoned that goal, and in fact we’re achieving, I think with this directive, the president’s No. 1 objective, which is a separate armed service,” the official said. “We’ve heard the concerns from Congress about not creating a large bureaucratic organization, and I think our thought was if we start going directly to a military department, which I think is our desired end state, then we would spend a lot of time dealing with bureaucracy and structure and not focusing on war fighting.”

The official also expressed optimism that there is enough time to get the legislation into this year’s defense policy bill despite the fact that hearings on the proposal have not yet been scheduled. The official did not provide a specific timeline for when the proposal will officially be sent to Congress, but said it will happen “as soon as we can” and suggested it would come between Tuesday’s directive and the budget submission, which is expected in mid-March.

“Initially, informal conversations, I think, have been very encouraging,” the official said of talks with lawmakers. “And we’re looking to work forward with them.”

Updated at 3:06 p.m.