On National Security | Space Force invades the midterms

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If Democrats make big gains, does Trump's proposal to create a new military service stand a chance?

“On National Security” appears in every issue of SpaceNews magazine. This column ran in the Oct. 22, 2018 issue.

The Space Force that U.S. President Donald Trump ordered the Pentagon to set up — a fully loaded new military department — could be a dim prospect if Republicans lose control of either the House or Senate when voters go to the polls Nov. 6 for the midterm elections.

Bipartisan compromise could still be reached on less costly options, such has organizing a Space Corps within the Air Force or standing up a U.S. Space Command. The latter option, especially, would be widely supported and the Pentagon already has a plan for making that happen. The Defense Department also wants to create a Space Development Agency to lead technology efforts. This too could be contentious as the new agency would take money and jobs from other organizations.

In the event Republicans retain their majority in both chambers, the Space Force could still face political obstacles. The cost of creating a new military branch and standing up U.S. Space Command — about $13 billion according to Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson — has led members on both sides to question the necessity of a separate department, although the lure of jobs and Pentagon dollars could change some minds.

Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Ala.), the chairman of the House Armed Services strategic forces subcommittee, was the leading advocate for a new service for space long before the president seized on the issue. “Trump did give us a lot of energy and a lot of focus on this.” Rogers said at a recent panel. “Protecting U.S. assets in space must become an urgent priority.”

Rogers also sees this as an opportunity to steer space programs and jobs to his state, where there’s already a significant NASA and military space presence.

In Tennessee’s Senate race, GOP Rep. Marsha Blackburn has framed the Space Force as a potential boost to the state’s economy. “Establishing Space Force is something whose time has come,” she said during an Oct. 11 debate. Given Tennessee’s major military bases and laboratories, Blackburn said, “absolutely we have the opportunity to bring part of this to our state.”

Blackburn’s opponent, former Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen, echoed the talking points of many Democrats: “I would want to know a lot more about the Space Force before I signed on to that idea and in particular, what it does that the Air Force would not be an appropriate place to do. Anytime you start another branch of the service like that, there’s going to be a whole array of overhead and other stuff that goes with it,” he said. “I certainly wouldn’t want the Space Force fighting with the Air Force about who gets resources. I’ve got an open mind, but I sure want to know a lot more about it before I sign onto it.”

Vice President Mike Pence has been working with the Pentagon on a legislative proposal. Trump in recent weeks has been pressing lawmakers to get on board. “The Space Force is very important,” Trump said at an Oct. 9 rally for Rep. David Young (R-Iowa). “We’ve got to get that done, congressman. Everybody wants that.”

At an Oct. 13 rally in Lexington, Kentucky, Trump implored voters to tell Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Sen. Rand Paul that “we need their help… Let them know how popular this is.”

Trump criticized the Pentagon for initially resisting his Space Force proposal. “I put them on the spot. Now they have to do it.”

At almost every rally, Trump insists that the Space Force is “very popular.” He says he gets “big applause wherever I go… when I talk about the Space Force.”

The big unknown is how Trump intends to pay for the Space Force without taking money away from prized programs as it puts together its fiscal year 2020 budget proposal due to be sent to Congress by Feb. 4.

With the latest Treasury Department numbers showing the federal budget deficit rose 17 percent year over year, Congress may be in no mood to add more money to the Pentagon’s topline, which has already grown $165 billion over two years. Analysts say military spending may have peaked with the $674 billion Defense Department budget Congress enacted for 2019.

Trump told his Cabinet last week to plan for 5 percent cuts in federal discretionary spending to help contain the deficit.

But he also indicated he has smaller cuts in mind for national security spending, saying he’ll seek $700 billion next year, or 2.3 percent less than the $716 billion Congress appropriated for the Defense Department and non-Pentagon nuclear weapons spending for the budget year that began Oct. 1.

The top Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee, Jack Reed, doubts there will be enough support in Congress for a Space Force given the fiscal challenge. A new military service, Reed told reporters at a recent gathering, “is not the way to deal with the challenges emerging in space.”


Sandra Erwin

 

Sandra Erwin covers military space for SpaceNews. She is a veteran national security journalist and former editor of National Defense magazine.