This morning, Vice President Mike Pence recommended creating three new organizations within the Defense Department that would be devoted to different space military needs. Then, he said President Trump will work with Congress next year to establish the US Department of the Space Force by 2020. Pences recommendations are outlined in a report from Deputy Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan, who Congress directed to come up with ways the Defense Department could reorganize its management of space activities. The US military has long relied on space technologies for various combat operations, such as satellites that do surveillance and reconnaissance or probes that can detect missile launches from space. However, all of the militarys responsibilities for space are spread among the Air Force, the National Reconnaissance Office, and the Army. Lawmakers have discussed restructuring the militarys space management system to unify it. On June 18th, Trump called for the creation of a Space Force during the third meeting of the National Space Council, a newly formed advisory group that helps shape the US agenda in space. Im hereby directing the Department of Defense and Pentagon to immediately begin the process necessary to establish a Space Force as the sixth branch of the armed forces, Trump said at the meeting. Thats a big statement. The announcement was surprising, but the Space Force has become part of Trumps talking points. Establishing the Space Force would require Congress to pass new legislation. Trump hopes to get that process started by asking for Space Force funding in his annual budget request next year, according to Pence. Then the administration will work with Congress to create the Space Force through next years National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), which is annual legislation that outlines the policies, responsibilities, and budgets for the various branches of the Defense Department. Congress recently passed the final NDAA for fiscal year 2019 on August 1st, but it did not include any language about creating a Space Force since the process for writing the act started before Trumps announcement. They put together a draft of that bill in the spring, Doug Loverro, an independent consultant and former deputy assistant secretary of defense for space policy, tells The Verge. Theyre not allowed to change anything in the draft they put forward, unless in places they explicitly disagree. The things they can only negotiate are things they have written. And the whole Space Force announcement happened in June. So the Space Force will have to wait until the next NDAA. But Pence hopes the military will make a few big changes in the interim based on the Shanahan report. First, hes calling for the creation of a new unified combatant command for space that will be named the United States Space Command. This would seemingly reorganize the warfighting chain of command for space, which is separate from what the Space Force would do. Within the Defense Department, there are two primary chains of command: warfighting and OTE (organize, train, and equip). OTE is the responsibility of the various military branches, such as the Air Force, Army, and Navy. Theyre in charge of figuring out what kinds of military equipment they want to make and then training the necessary people to use that equipment. This is what the Space Force would focus on: creating satellites and training personnel to operate them. The warfighting chain of command works at a higher level. This area of the Defense Department consists of various combatant commands, such as EUCOM or STRATCOM, which decide how to strategically use the branches of the military. For instance, CENTCOM decides what troops and equipment it needs stationed in the Middle East based on whats available, and then the armed forces provide those resources. Currently, the warfighting chain of command for space is overseen by STRATCOM, which is mostly focused on nuclear deterrence and global strike. But the Trump administration would create a separate command for space apart from STRATCOM, led by a four-star flag officer. This is a throwback: in 1985, the US created the US Space Command to do exactly this, but the organization was put under the umbrella of STRATCOM in 2002. Pence also wants the Defense Department to create a new organization called the Space Development Agency, which would reorganize how the military acquires new space technology. Currently, space acquisitions are done by the Air Forces Space and Missile Systems Center. But this new agency would seem to take that responsibility away from the Air Force. Pence called for a new elite group of joint warfighters, specializing in the domain of space, who would be part of a newly minted Space Operations Force. Its not clear where this organization will reside, but it may serve as the backbone for what the eventual Space Force will become. Theyre going to be pulling people from the Air Force, from the Marines, from the Army, to put them in this new organization to think about how space fits into warfighting, Brian Weeden, a space expert at the Secure World Foundation, a nonprofit that specializes in space security, tells The Verge. It sounds like that is to be the nucleus that becomes the separate Space Force. A new civilian position will also be created, Pence says: the assistant secretary of defense for space. This person will report to the secretary of defense and make sure the new reorganization efforts are running smoothly. Creating a new branch of the military is not a simple process, Pence said during his speech. It will require collaboration, diligence, and, above all, leadership. As challenges arise and deadlines approach, there must be someone in charge who can execute, hold others accountable, and be responsible for the results. These changes may sound like good news to some lawmakers who have supported shaking up the way the military does space. For instance, experts argue that the Air Force acquisitions process for space takes too long to get satellites into orbit and that the military is resistant and slow to implement changes to space policies. Reorganization could help get rid of those problems or just create new ones. There are problems with the current creation, says Weeden. Im just not convinced these changes are going to fix those problems. Reorganizations always take longer and are more complicated than we think they are. Im concerned this is going to suck up a lot of time, energy, and resources.
The "how" is coming together even as the "why" remains a bit vague. Today, Vice President Mike Pence gave a speech at the Pentagon in which he filled in some details on the administration's plans to add a distinct space force to the Department of Defense. The speech coincided with the completion of a Pentagon report that provides a greater sense of how the space force would be structured and fit in with the existing Defense bureaucracy. But there's still a lot unspecified regarding whether non-defense space activities, such as those pursued by the NSA, will be affected by the changes. A significant portion of Pence's speech was devoted to arguing that this is the right time for a space force. Some of the arguments date back to the Cold War, like the development of anti-satellite weaponry, a concern enhanced by China's testing of such a weapon about a decade ago. Others are more recent, like the development of things such as GPS-jamming hardware. One of the arguments stretched logic a little, as Pence cited the threat of hypersonic missiles, which pose a risk because they don't enter space and therefore can't be targeted for antimissile interception there. While these events may not represent a coherent plan by an adversary to militarize space, Pence argued that they represent a situation where US adversaries like China and Russia have already made space what he termed a warfighting domain. "What was once peaceful and uncontested is now crowded and adversarial," Pence said, referring to space. " Today, other nations are seeking to disrupt our space-based systems and challenge our supremacy as never before." He quoted Trump in saying that this was unacceptable and that "We must have American dominance in space." Pence has argued that this change meant that the appropriate response is a new branch of the military, but his view of history here was a bit odd. The two examples he cited to argue for the benefits of a space force were the US Air Force's growth during World War II and the formation of the Special Operations Command in the 1980s. But the Air Force's growth took place while it was still the Army Air Corps; its current status was only granted afterward. The Special Operations Command, by contrast, hasn't achieved the same status as that intended for space force. Be that as it may, the administration is starting to fill out some details about what might go into a space force. These would include a secretary of the Space Force, which will eventually reach the same status as the secretary of the Army or Navy and have a seat on the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The secretary will oversee a unified combat command that will coordinate activities and establish combat doctrines for space. That will be joined by a Space Development Agency that, by becoming part of the defense bureaucracy, is intended to be an antidote to bureaucracy and enable new thinking. The first chance to implement any of this will be in the 2020 budget. Starting then, the administration hopes to spend $8 billion over the ensuing five years. In terms of practical considerations, Pence mentioned a couple of activities that will be folded into the space force. These include our current anti-ballistic missile defense systems. Pence also mentioned reconnaissance satellites. While the military operates a number of these, others are handled by civilian agencies like the NSA, as it was found to be advantageous to have multiple sources of intelligence. It's not clear whether that independent operation will continue and, if so, how these activities will be coordinated with those of the space force. While the details are still sparse, all indications are that the majority of the personnel and activities that could end up in the space force will come from the Air Force. Whatever happens with the creation of the space force, US doctrine will remain constrained by the Outer Space Treaty, which outlaws the positioning of weapons of mass destruction in space or any weaponry on the Moon. While this does allow a variety of conventional weapons in space, practical considerations should limit things like anti-satellite weapons, which have the potential to create debris fields that limit access to space by all nations. When the report becomes available, we'll update this article to reflect it.