After months of teasing a new military arm devoted to extra-stratospheric security, President Donald Trump publicly ordered the Department of Defense and the Pentagon to immediately begin establishing a Space Force as the sixth branch of the armed forces on Monday.
Well, maybe. The president’s statement was not accompanied by any written directive or executive order calling for the creation of a new, space-based branch of the armed forces, as some outlets initially reported. The White House press office confirmed that the only signed document issued today was a policy directive for reducing satellite clutter.
The commander in chief’s remarks, while perhaps not official, do appear to be taken seriously. But it’s still totally unclear how and where and when the Pentagon is supposed to stand up its first new armed service since 1947. Or even if it can, without congressional approval. Trump—who first began calling for troops in space earlier this year—made the surprise announcement during a speech at a meeting of the newly-revived National Space Council, the purpose of which was to unveil the US’s new framework for managing commercial space traffic and monitoring debris.
This wasn’t just another instance of the president making off-the-cuff proclamations—like in March, when Trump raised the prospect of creating a Space Force in remarks to troops at a marine air base outside San Diego. During today’s appearance, Trump roped in a high-ranking military official. From the podium he called out for Gen. Joseph Dunford Jr., the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. “General Dunford, if you would carry that assignment out, I would be very greatly honored,” Trump said.
“We got it,” the general replied.
Neither the President nor the general provided any more details about what exactly the Space Force would do, how it would be funded, which assets would be rolled into it, and who would run it. As it stands, the US does have a space force of a type: The Air Force is largely in charge of national security in space, including supervising launches and controlling DoD satellites. Trump indicated that his Space Force would be “separate but equal” from the Air Force—a grotesque misappropriation of the phrase derived from Plessy v. Ferguson, the Supreme Court case once used to legally prop up racial segregation.
When asked whether Dunford’s verbal affirmation constituted an official endorsement, the Pentagon emailed a statement it had released earlier in the day from Dana W. White, the DoD’s chief spokeswoman: “We understand the President’s guidance. Our Policy Board will begin working on this issue, which has implications for intelligence operations for the Air Force, Army, Marines, and Navy. Working with Congress, this will be a deliberate process with a great deal of input from multiple stakeholders.”
It’s exactly that kind of measured bureaucratic process that has mired the idea of a military branch devoted to space protection in partisan controversy—even as far back as Bill Clinton’s presidency. Last July, Trump’s own Defense Secretary Jim Mattis wrote in a letter to a House subcommittee: “I oppose the creation of a new military service and additional organizational layers at a time when we are focused on reducing overhead and integrating joint warfighting functions.”
While the Pentagon might have been caught by surprise today, the military has recently been in the process of evaluating the concept of a Space Force, its feasibility, and its structure. The National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal year 2018 directed the DoD to hire an independent research organization to provide Congress with a roadmap for a “space corps.” That report is due in August. A potentially more interesting study, due in September, is underway at the Center for Naval Analyses, according to aerospace security expert, Todd Harrison. That report could make its way to Congress in time to consider for next year’s NDAA negotiations.
“The big challenge over the next six months is going to be to get some bipartisan support behind this so it doesn’t turn into a laughingstock, the way that Reagan’s Star Wars did,” says John Pike, a defense analyst and director of GlobalSecurity.org. He’s argued before Congress for decades about a national security imperative for the US to maintain its superpower status in space. In his view, that includes a separate military branch. “Sooner or later we’re going to have to do it. Space is different from the air and the sea and the land.” And so too will its long-term military strategy have to be.