Space Force expected to live on past Trump era
President-elect Joe Biden has pledged to reverse or review many of President Trump’s changes at the Pentagon, but one of Trump’s signature achievements is expected to live on: the Space Force.
The service has been a punchline for late-night comedians since Trump first began talking about it and even inspired a Netflix satire. Some progressive groups have called for Biden to abolish what they consider a wasteful flight of Trump’s fancy.
Neither Biden nor his team have detailed his plans for the military service, and the transition did not respond to requests for comment from The Hill.
But getting rid of the Space Force would take an act of Congress, where it enjoys bipartisan support among lawmakers who view the new branch as integral to ensuring the military puts enough focus on space to counter China and Russia.
And as the Space Force celebrates its first anniversary Sunday, the general in charge of it says he remains focused on growing the service in its second year.
“What isn’t going to change is my focus and the focus of our team, and that is on building a service that delivers national advantages,” Chief of Space Operations Gen. John Raymond, who will officially become a member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff when the service turns one year old, told reporters this week.
Raymond added that he had a “very good conversation” with Biden’s transition team in the past week, but declined to “speculate” on what the incoming administration might do with the Space Force, saying he’s “not in the politics business.”
The Space Force was created as the sixth branch of the military with Trump’s signing of the annual defense policy bill on Dec. 20, 2019. Since then, about 2,400 service members have officially transferred into the service, with plans to grow to 6,400 active-duty troops and add a reserve component in 2021.
The White House celebrated the service’s first birthday with a ceremony Friday during which Vice President Pence announced that troops in the service will be called “guardians.”
“Sailors, soldiers, airmen, Marines and guardians will be defending our nation for generations to come,” Pence said.
While Trump championed the idea of a separate military branch for space and coined the name, the service that eventually became the Space Force has its roots as a bipartisan House proposal.
In 2017, House lawmakers approved plans for what they were calling the Space Corps, but the proposal died after meeting fierce bipartisan resistance in the Senate and the Pentagon. In 2018, Trump took up the cause, shepherding the Space Force to its creation.
Rep. Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.), one of the architects of the space service, highlighted the congressional origins of the branch as he urged Biden to understand its importance.
“I hope the next administration understands the need for a Space Force – which was in the works long before Trump got on board,” Cooper said in a statement to The Hill.
Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Ala.), the incoming ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee, was the other main congressional proponent for the Space Force.
A spokesperson for Roger, who was recently diagnosed with COVID-19 and who signed onto the Texas lawsuit that sought to overturn the election results, did not respond to a request for comment on his hopes for Space Force under the Biden administration.
Space Force proponents argue the Air Force was not putting enough attention on space to protect U.S. assets from threats from Russia and China. Both countries, for example, have stepped up anti-satellite missile tests in recent years.
Opponents, meanwhile, argue that a new service created an unnecessary bureaucracy that could add to Pentagon budget bloat.
During the presidential campaign, dozens of progressive groups signed a letter to Biden that in part called on him to “cancel” the Space Force.
Once Biden won the election, more than 30 progressive groups sent a memo to Biden’s transition team in mid-November calling for him to cut defense spending in part by abolishing the Space Force.
Most of Space Force’s $15 billion budget for fiscal 2021 was culled from existing Air Force funding.
Because the Space Force is enshrined in law, abolishing it is “not something the president can do himself,” said Todd Harrison, director of the Aerospace Security Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies
“If you eliminate it, you’re going to eliminate things like GPS, missile warning satellites, all of these things that the military has come to depend on and our economic security has come to depend on,” Harrison said. “So I think that those are really hollow arguments that are being made, so I don’t think the incoming Biden administration will really pay any attention to those kinds of uninformed calls for its elimination.”
Harrison said he would expect to see continuity in the Space Force across administrations, with the biggest change being less focus on the service from the White House itself.
One area where that could play out is as the service looks to add in space components from the Army, Navy and Marine Corps in its second year after the first year focused on transferring space components from the Air Force.
That’s a process Harrison said will involve “competing interests” fighting to make “difficult decisions.” Whereas Trump or Pence might have intervened if something wasn’t going the way they wanted, in the Biden administration, it will be up to Pentagon officials “to work this and to try to get it right,” Harrison said.
“The only credible threat of intervention is really from Congress,” he added. “In the Biden administration, the Space Force is going to need to fight to win their attention, to make sure senior folks have a deeper understanding of space security issues, that their information is not you know stuck where it was five or 10 years ago because a lot has changed. And so I think they’re gonna have to fight for that attention, and they’re gonna have to prove their value.”