WASHINGTON — Defense Secretary Mark Esper on Wednesday gave the United States Space Command a forceful endorsement and described the standup of the new command as the “next crucial step” in the Pentagon’s reorganization of space forces.

Esper spoke on Wednesday in his first news conference as defense secretary alongside Chairman of the Joint Chief of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford. Esper insisted that he does not intend to depart from the broad goals of the 2018 National Defense Strategy, which calls for DoD to work closely with allies and to modernize the U.S. military to outpace China and Russia.

On Thursday at the White House, President Trump and Vice President Pence will host an establishment ceremony with Esper and the commander of U.S. Space Command Gen. John Raymond.

“I’m excited for tomorrow’s activation of the United States Space Command to ensure the protection of America’s interests in space,” Esper said. “We must apply the necessary focus, energy and resources to the task. That is exactly what the command will do.”

Esper also voiced support for the establishment of an independent Space Force as a branch of the armed forces. But DoD cannot move forward until Congress authorizes it.

“As a unified command, the United States Space Command is the next crucial step toward the creation of an independent Space Force as an additional armed service — an independent additional armed service,” said Esper.

Congress is on recess until Sept. 9. But DoD officials have met with congressional committee staffs over the August recess to discuss Space Force legislation, sources told SpaceNews. The Pentagon specifically is pushing back on the Senate version of the National Defense Authorization Act, which re-designates the Air Force Space Command as the U.S. Space Force but does not rewrite Title 10 of the U.S. Code to establish a new military service. The Senate proposes a one-year transition after which it would consider Title 10 revisions. The House version of the NDAA does not require that transition period.

“In order to achieve the intent of standing up the new force and executing the bill, additional technical and conforming amendments are necessary,” says a DoD memo.

In testimony in front of the Senate Armed Services Committee during his confirmation hearing in July, Esper said this is the right time to create a space service, and compared space forces today to air forces in 1947. “When they pulled the Army Air Corps out of the United States Army, it freed up our aviators to think about warfighting in the air domain and how you conduct warfare unencumbered by a hierarchy, if you will, that was focused on ground combat,” he said. “That’s how I think about this problem. I think we just got to realize that it is a new domain of warfare and it requires a different organizational construct and a different way of thinking about it.”

Although both the House and the Senate have some form of space force language in the NDAA, they differ on the specifics of how it should be organized.

In written answers to advance policy questions submitted to the committee, Esper noted that he has issues with the Senate language. The Senate proposes a phased approach out of concerns about excessive costs and growth in the military bureaucracy.

“I appreciate Congress’s support for the establishment of a Space Force and, if confirmed, I look forward to working with Congress on this important initiative,” Esper wrote. “Although the SASC language provides key elements to elevating the space domain, such as the four-star military leadership with membership on the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the direct report to the Secretary of the Air Force, I urge the committee to provide the necessary technical legislative authority to establish the Space Force as the sixth branch of the Armed Forces within the Department of the Air Force. I also request the committee to provide the department with the necessary resources to ensure its success.”

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...