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Pence leaves open the possibility of nuclear weapons in space: ‘Peace comes through strength’

Vice President Mike Pence on Oct. 23 said the Trump administration has no plans to amend the 1967 Outer Space Treaty. (Video: Washington Post Live)

Vice President Pence on Tuesday declined to rule out the idea of deploying nuclear weapons in space, saying that the current ban on their use is “in the interest of every nation” but that the issue should be decided on “the principle that peace comes through strength.”

“What we need to do is make sure that we provide for the common defense of the people of the United States of America, and that’s the president’s determination here,” Pence said in an interview with The Washington Post, when asked whether nuclear weapons should be banned from orbit.

Pence added, “What we want to do is continue to advance the principle that peace comes through strength.”

The new positioning comes as the Trump administration moves to potentially exit a major nuclear weapons pact with Russia and possibly bolster U.S. military operations in the heavens by forming a “Space Force.”

The 1967 Outer Space Treaty outlawed weapons of mass destruction in space, including nuclear weapons, and prevented the arms race between the United States and the former Soviet Union from entering space.

Pence said the 1967 treaty “does ban weapons of mass destruction in space, but it doesn’t ban military activity. It actually is — it gives nations a fair amount of flexibility in operating for their security interests in space. And at this time, we don’t see any need to amend the treaty.”

In recent days, President Trump has signaled a willingness to withdraw the United States from or renegotiate long-standing treaties. Trump told reporters Saturday in Nevada that the United States would withdraw from a landmark 1987 arms control agreement with the former Soviet Union, because of his belief that it constrains the United States from developing its own weapons and that Russia has violated the pact.

Pence’s remarks Tuesday came during a “Transformers: Space” policy summit hosted by The Post at the newspaper’s Washington headquarters, where he provided an outline of the Trump administration’s plans for space in the coming year. Pence announced in August that the administration hopes to establish the Space Force as the sixth branch of the U.S. military as soon as 2020, the first since the Air Force was formed after World War II.

Later Tuesday, the National Space Council, convened by the White House and chaired by the vice president, met at the National Defense University. It will send a number of recommendations to Trump about creating a U.S. Space Command that would oversee space activities.

The Space Force, however, could meet resistance on Capitol Hill, where some conservative Republicans are reluctant to back a sweeping new federal program. The Air Force has estimated that the Space Force could cost $3 billion in its first year and probably would need $13 billion in its first five years. Some military leaders have criticized the proposal as too expensive and cumbersome.

Speaking at The Post event, Rep. Don Beyer (D-Va.) said that many members of Congress have a “wait and see” view of the proposed Space Force.

Pence maintained that he and Trump would like the next round of defense spending to include “language that authorizes the establishment of the United States Space Force and a department as the sixth branch of the service.”

On the GOP reluctance to authorize more federal spending, Pence said, “I would just ask my old colleagues in the Congress, ‘What price freedom?’ ”

Pence argued that the Space Force is critical for U.S. national security as China and Russia expand their presence in space and for “ensuring that America remains as dominant in space militarily as we are here on Earth.” Pence also said the Space Force would be needed to provide security for civilian missions to put “American boots back on the Moon” and eventually “seeing Americans land on Mars.”

“In 2015, China essentially stood up its own space force. Russia, in the very same year, assigned a part of its aerospace division to a space force,” Pence said. “What President Trump has initiated here, in a very real sense, while America continues to lead in technology and in innovation and in military strength, in terms of organizational structure, this is what our competitors are already doing.”

Russia and China are engaged in robust efforts to fight wars in space, developing technology and weapons designed to take out U.S. satellites that are used in missile defense and enable soldiers to communicate and monitor adversaries, according to reports this year from the Secure World Foundation and the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

While Pence spoke on Tuesday with a measured tone, Trump has made the Space Force a rallying cry at his campaign events in the weeks ahead of November’s midterm elections.

“So we have the Army, the Navy, the Air Force, the Marines, the Coast Guard, but we have the Air Force. Now we’re going to have the Space Force because it’s a whole — we need it. We need it,” Trump said this summer at a rally in Minnesota as the crowd chanted, “Space Force!”

Pence dismissed the suggestion that Trump’s approach may have put a partisan sheen on the Space Force.

Trump has “been able to communicate that in a way that’s captured the imagination of the American people,” he said.

Christian Davenport contributed to this report.