The White House has been seriously considering the establishment of a “Space Force” as a separate military department, akin to the U.S. Army or Navy, for at least a year — long before President Trump brought it up in a rally in March and directed the Pentagon to pursue it.
In a report issued late last year, the White House Office of Management and Budget extolled the virtues of a new military service, saying there were “fundamental deficiencies” with the way the Pentagon organized its efforts in space and called for a “clean organizational slate.”
“Just as other domains — land, sea and air — have their own departments, studies have made a strong argument that space, as the fourth warfighting domain, should be similarly organized,” according to the report, a copy of which was obtained by The Washington Post.
At a rally on March 13, Trump called for the creation of a “Space Force,” casting it as an idea that came to him almost on a lark. “I said, ‘Maybe we need a new force. We’ll call it the “Space Force,” ’ ” he said. “And I was not really serious. And then I said what a great idea. Maybe we’ll have to do that.”
Then, at a White House ceremony in June, he directed the Pentagon to begin the process of establishing what would become the first new military department since the establishment of the Air Force after World War II. “We are going to have the Air Force,” Trump said, “and we are going to have the ‘Space Force.’ Separate but equal.”
But the OMB report shows that the seeds for the White House’s support for a new military department date from well before Trump’s public comments, and it gives some insight into how the proposal came to fruition.
The report was called for by the 2017 Pentagon spending plan, a provision sought by key members of Congress who had been pushing for a Space Corps, similar to how the Marine Corps is part of the Navy Department.
Its release to Congress was delayed months until last December in part because the Air Force did not support its conclusions at the time, said Rep. Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.) who along with Rep. Mike D. Rogers (R-Ala.) had been pushing the Pentagon to make space a greater priority.
“We needed help to brush back Air Force resistance,” he said in an interview. “The Air Force had done a lot to slow the idea down.”
A significant reorganization was, however, something the OMB could get behind. The 19-page report, dated Dec. 4, 2017, but was not released publicly lamented the “scattered authorities” within the Pentagon that oversee space, and called for a single agency to be in charge.
“With the rapid pace of innovation in the space domain, it will become increasingly critical to respond quickly to changing threats and opportunities, and this requires someone with the time and attention to focus exclusively on space,” it said.
It also said that the Air Force, which oversees the majority of the Pentagon’s space activities, has a “conflict of interest.” Space programs, it noted, “will at times require trade-offs in other Air Force programs, which could incentivize advocacy for space,” it said. “Further, space must compete with traditional Air Force missions, specifically fixed-wing aviation.”
Having a favorable view within the White House helped, and as the president’s advisers became aware of the report, the issues it raised helped as well, Rogers said. Having the president focus on the problem “was a game changer,” he said. “Once he had full awareness of what China and Russia were doing and what our problems have been he’s a disrupter. He was comfortable with it. The Pentagon is resistant to change and it was always that way.”
For months, some members of Congress had been calling for a new military service branch, but their efforts were shelved. But calling for OMB to prepare a report on the subject appeared to pay off.
“Now it also looks like they were pushing on an open door, at least within OMB, with these organizational reform efforts,” said Todd Harrison, a defense analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “It suggests there has been some deeper thinking going on about this in the White House before the president ever was talking about this.”
The report noted, however, that creating a whole new service branch “would not be quick or easy.” But it also noted that potential adversaries in space, such as China, “do not intend to relent in their preparations to negate space capabilities.”
Cooper said that he thought that Trump’s full-throated endorsement to push legislation through Congress to establish a “Space Force” by 2020 could have a downside — especially among Democrats.
“This is a bull-in-china-shop approach. He’s breaking a lot things unnecessarily,” he said. “The 2020 deadline — that’s virtually impossible for any bureaucracy to achieve, especially the Pentagon. This a is a lot of upheaval for them to handle.”
Rogers, however, said the president’s endorsement would only help with an issue that he said had been ignored by Congress for too long.
“Most people don’t realize China and Russia are no longer our near-peers in space. They are our peers,” he said. “And if we don’t do something dramatically different, they are going to surpass us. And that’s unacceptable.”