Space Corps or Force? Pentagon will take a look

The Pentagon is finalizing a contract with an as yet unidentified think tank to review matters of military space, including the possibility of establishing a Space Corps within the Air Force with the aim of boosting military space expertise, Deputy Defense Secretary Patrick M. Shanahan advised Congress a few weeks ago.

President Donald Trump referred to this congressionally-ordered review when he aired the idea of an even bolder step than a space corps: creation of an entire service branch that would be focused on space.

“We have the Air Force; we’ll have the Space Force,” Trump said during a speech at a Marine Corps Base in California, couching his force idea as a “maybe.”

As matters stand, it’s far from clear whether either a Space Corps or Space Force will come to pass, based on the public record and my interviews with experts.

Defense Secretary James Mattis told congressional leaders in a letter last October that he opposes “the creation of a new military service and organizational layers at a time when we are focused on reducing overhead and integrating joint warfighting functions.”

He was reacting to the House Strategic Forces subcommittee, which drafted language that would have ordered the Pentagon to “create a Space Corps within the Air Force.” Lawmakers removed that authorization language after Mattis’ objection and replaced it with the review that’s about to get underway.

Is there an agenda driving these twists and turns?

Doug Loverro, a former U.S. deputy assistant secretary of defense for space policy, thinks there is. He believes Pentagon critics of the Space Corps proposal are “purposefully conflating” the proposal with creation of a separate armed services branch, a far more costly option, “in order to negate the concept” of a Space Corps within the Air Force.

Loverro, who backs the creation of a Space Corps, says he expects critics of the concept to also point to the National Space Defense Center at Schriever Air Force Base, Colorado. The center was transitioned in January from a test program for interagency data sharing to a full-time center where the military and intelligence community will share data intended to project U.S. satellites. The center was given a simplified name in 2017 after its establishment in 2015 as the Joint Interagency Combined Space Operations Center. That name was similar to the Air Force’s Joint Space Operations Center, pronounced JAY-SPOC, a watch floor at Vandenberg Air Force, Base, Calif.

In January, Gen. Jay Raymond, commander of Air Force Space Command, said making the center full-time marks “a significant milestone” that “expands our space situational awareness and bolsters our readiness.”

This expansion followed the passage in December of the Defense Authorization Act of 2018, which ordered the review of military space management to be completed by August. Shanahan said in a report to the House and Senate Armed Services Committees on March 1 that he is finalizing the contract for the independent study.

Loverro says the National Space Defense Center’s data sharing is important, but that its mission will not address the needs that would be met by the House proposal, including creating a dedicated space career path for military personnel.

As for the bureaucracy criticism, he notes that Army leaders voiced similar fears “to fight against the Army Air Corps,” which was formed within the Army in 1926 and later became the Army Air Forces and then in 1947 the U.S. Air Force, a separate service branch.

“They don’t want to get on the slippery slope of space being separated from the Air Force, and it’s easier to argue about the end state being bureaucratic than the current need being met by simple personnel changes,” Loverro says.

Some of Trump’s words at Marine Corps Station Miramar in San Diego echoed those of today’s U.S. military-space brass. “Space is a war-fighting domain, just like the land, air and sea,” Trump said. Then he seemed to riff: “We’re doing a tremendous amount of work in space. I said, ‘maybe we need a new force, we’ll call it the space force,’ and I was not really serious. Then I said, ‘what a great idea,’ maybe we’ll have to do that,” Trump remarked.

When asked about the broader sounding “Space Force,” a spokeswoman for the House Armed Services Committee told me that the members from both parties want “to ensure that, as an essential domain of warfare, space is fully resourced. What we call it is not nearly as important as how we fix it.”

Critics of the Space Corps idea have long compared it to a potentially expensive and over-bureaucratic creation of an entire new branch of the armed forces, or a step toward that eventual separation.

The House proposal called for creating a Space Corps “within” the Air Force, but about a week after Trump’s speech, Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., said during a hearing that “I’m not too keen on ripping space out of the Air Force and creating a Space Corps.” Nelson also asked Gen. John Hyten head of U.S. Strategic Command, for an opinion about the Space Corps proposal.

“I think that someday we’ll have a Space Corps or Space Force in this country,” Hyten said. “But I don’t think the time is right for that right now.”



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Space Corps or Force? Pentagon will take a look