WASHINGTON — Defense Department officials on Friday detailed a five-year plan to establish a U.S. Space Force as a new branch of the military. If Congress approves it, it would be the smallest of the armed services, with just 15,000 members, and its annual cost would be about $500 million.

The more colorful aspects of a military service — the uniforms, the basic training or the weapons it will use — were not discussed in the Pentagon’s Space Force proposal. Officials said it would be premature to get down to that level of detail at this stage in the game.

The first step will be to get congressional authorization and $72 million in 2020 to stand up a Space Force headquarters in the Pentagon, under the umbrella of the Department of the Air Force. The headquarters initially would have about 200 people, a mix of military and civilian personnel led by a four-star chief of staff, a vice chief of staff and a civilian undersecretary of the Air Force for space.

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The Pentagon put together the proposal in just seven months following President Trump’s order to establish a space service. Now it is asking Congress to review it and consider including it in the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2020. Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan said he wants October 1 to be “the birthday of the Space Force.”

Behind the scenes, administration officials worry that there is a small window of opportunity to get this done. If the Space Force authorization were not to happen this year, it could very well fall by the legislative wayside in the next Congress during a presidential election year.

A team of five Pentagon officials responsible for the Space Force reorganization met with reporters on Friday to discuss the details of the proposal on the condition that they not be quoted by name.

Even if Congress approves it this year, the Space Force will not be a “instantaneous 2020 event,” one official said. “This will take some time.”

The plan is to transfer thousands of service members, primarily from the Air Force, into the Space Force starting in 2021. Then the Pentagon will move to consolidate major space acquisitions and budgets into the new service.

In presentation slides sent to congressional staffers last week, DoD argued that a new service is needed to transform the military space posture “from a support function to a warfighting domain.” And doing so requires “focused leadership, advocacy, expertise” as well as the consolidation of organizations, said one of DoD’s briefing slides.

At the beginning, the Space Force would mostly be an administrative exercise of moving organization boxes round and lining up budgets. But over time it would lay the foundation for space operators to build their own culture like the other branches of the military have, one official said. “We’re going to try to establish a unique culture, with special training, promotions, doctrine. … Those are things you won’t see in the proposal but it’s important for you to understand where we’re headed.”

This gets at what Space Force proponents have complained about for decades and have identified as a glaring shortfall in the Air Force: the lack of career opportunities and specialized training for space operators.

Space organizations in the Air Force, Army and Navy today are responsible for designing, launching and operating satellites, as well as intelligence-focused activities. Merging them under the Space Force could be done relatively quickly. But an institutional foundation is not something that can delivered out of whole cloth. It will be up to the leaders of the new branch to sort through things like officer training and structure ROTC and service academy programs.

“At first I thought it was a bit of a punt to not include the details in the legislative proposal,” said defense and aerospace analyst Todd Harrison, of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “But after giving it some thought, I think this is probably the right way to do it. You would not want to over specify exactly how the implementation is going to take place in terms of which organizational will move or which personnel will move,” he told SpaceNews. “Later you might discover that you need to make adjustments. And if that is all set in statute, then it would be nearly impossible to make changes.”

He said DoD’s approach to organizing the Space Force closely follows what was done in 1947 to create the Air Force.

The Space Force would sit under the Air Force, as the Marine Corps sits under the Navy. But unlike the Marines, the space branch would have its own civilian undersecretary. Sources familiar with Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson’s thinking on this said she was insistent that space should have an undersecretary to be an advocate for budgets and programs and give the service a degree of autonomy. Air Force leaders for years have been criticized by space advocates on Capitol Hill for dipping into space budgets for pay for air programs. Under the proposed structure, space would be able to fight for its share of the pie. The Space Force, however, would not have its own assistant secretaries so acquisition programs, for example, would be overseen by the assistant secretary of the Air Force for acquisitions Will Roper.

DoD officials said they were able to keep the cost of adding a Space Force to about $500 million by tapping into existing resources. The legislative proposal does not seek authority for a Space Force Academy or for separate medical, dental, veterinary, nursing, biomedical, Judge Advocate General, or chaplain functions.

The headquarters is projected grow to about 1,000 people. The rest of the force will be units transferred from the Air Force, Army and Navy although the Space Force will have its own recruiting shop. “We want people to be recruited into the Space Force like the Marine Corps recruits Marines,” one official said.

Transfer of people, programs

When the time comes to actually decide who should move to the Space Force, things could get tricky and contentious. Officials mentioned the Navy’s Mobile User Objective System communications satellites as an obvious example of a program that should be under the space branch. But there are many grey areas, such as Navy or Army units that do space-related work that is intrinsic to their mission and, it could be argued, should stay where they are.

“These are decisions that will be worked through,” one of the officials told reporters. “There’s great debates about what actually needs to be unique or not.”

DoD does not intend to transition to the Space Force missions that are tangentially associated with space such as nuclear and cyberspace operations, or missile defense.

The Pentagon is asking Congress to give the secretary of defense special authorities over five years to move resources into the Space Force, similar to the authorities DoD got in 1947 to form the Air Force. But DoD is open to negotiations with Congress over specifics. “It’d be pretty easy for them to bound that authority as they see fit,” the official said.

He noted that Shanahan has discussed this issue with military service leaders and does not expect “much resistance” to the transfer of people and programs. That said, “there is still work there to be done.”

Officials also addressed one of the talking points of Space Force critics: that the expense and disruption from standing up a new branch is disproportionate considering that the space service would be less than 5 percent the size of the Air Force.

“It’s not the size that matters,” the official said. “It’s a small force but it would be pivotal in a potential conflict. We need people who are able to apply technical skills into warfighting.” Different services have different way of measuring themselves, he said. “The Space Force will be the most technical service we have.”

Sandra Erwin writes about military space programs, policy, technology and the industry that supports this sector. She has covered the military, the Pentagon, Congress and the defense industry for nearly two decades as editor of NDIA’s National Defense...