On Monday, President Trump went off script and announced that he would remove responsibilities for the space domain from the US Air Force and create a sixth branch of the armed forces he calls the Space Force. “We are going to have the Air Force, and we are going to have the Space Force, separate but equal,” Trump said Monday, at the outset of a meeting of the National Space Council. “It is going to be something. So important.”
The idea isn’t new. For several years, some members of the US Congress have talked about creating a new discipline in the Air Force dubbed the “Space Corps” to focus exclusively on developing “warfighter” capabilities in space. The Air Force and some allies in Congress have pushed back against this idea, and Secretary of Defense James Mattis prefers to keep management of space activities as they are within the Air Force.
Air Force letter
On Tuesday, in a letter to US Air Force personnel obtained by Ars, the Air Force’s leadership responded to Trump’s proposal. The letter—signed by Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson, Chief of Staff David L. Goldfein, and Chief Master Sergeant Kaleth O. Wright—noted that the president’s announcement emphasizes the Air Force’s important role in meeting potential adversaries in space and recognizes the significance of space as a warfighting domain.
The work to consider a Space Force, the letter said, will be: “a thorough, deliberate, inclusive process. As such, we should not expect any immediate moves or changes.” Indeed, the creation of a new branch of the military can only be done at the direction of Congress.
To this end, the Air Force leadership promised its personnel that it would work with several groups on the president’s proposal. “We look forward to working with Department of Defense leaders, Congress, and our national security partners to move forward on this planning effort,” the letter states.
The language here seems carefully chosen. The entities the Air Force says it intends to work with have all opposed the idea of a Space Corps to one extent or another, and it seems to be a nod to the fact that the Air Force has allies in its opposition to the creation of a wholly new “corps” or “force” devoted to space.
Not a joke
Although this issue has simmered for several years, Monday’s announcement by the president raised the issue to another level, bringing widespread national coverage to the idea of a “Space Force.” Much of the coverage has lampooned Trump’s idea of putting soldiers into space or mocking him for a Starship Troopers-like plan he plucked from a movie. This really isn’t an accurate characterization.
A Space Force or Corps would, as Defense News reporter Valerie Insinna noted Tuesday, exist primarily to “man, train, and equip military space missions. It’s about making sure we have the right people and tech for the job.” The US military is searching for the proper response to increasing Chinese activity in space, and there is a valid debate to be had about what form that response should take. No one is talking about putting troops into space but rather how to protect US and allied satellites and ensure peaceful access to geostationary orbit and cislunar space near the Moon.
In lieu of creating a “Space Corps” last year, Congress voted to study the issue and act on it later. Tuesday’s measured response from the Air Force leaders to their troops appears to signal that they will study this idea, too, but it also indicates they are in no hurry whatsoever to implement it. Indeed, they may play a waiting game to see how long the president remains in office or pushes the idea of a “Space Force” with ardor.