Political odds stacked against Space Force. Proponents brace for long fight

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SN Military.Space Sandra Erwin

Elections have consequences. But exactly what the new power structure in Washington means for the future of the Space Force will not be known for some time.

Pundits have declared that the Trump administration’s plan to create a new military branch for space is dead on arrival following the Democratic takeover of the House of Representatives. But hope is not lost, posits Doug Loverro, former assistant secretary of defense for space policy and a staunch advocate of establishing a Space Force as an independent military service.

Speaking last week with David Livingston, host of “The Space Show,” Loverro argued it is too soon to give up. “Chances are still greater than zero,” he said. Even if Republicans had retained control of the House, the Space Force was far from a shoo-in. Now, proponents face a steeper climb. “This has become a partisan issue. I have been saying it shouldn’t be, but unfortunately it has become a partisan issue.” Several “Space Show” callers criticized the Space Force as a pet project and questioned its necessity.

NEW LEADERSHIP ON THE HILL The Space Force’s best hopes lie in House Armed Services Committee members Reps. Mike Rogers (R-Ala.) and Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.), both of whom won reelection and will continue to drive legislation on the reorganization of space responsibilities in DoD. The committee’s likely chairman, Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.), however, is not onboard even though in the past he supported Rogers and Cooper’s proposal to create a Space Corps under the Department of the Air Force.

The Space Corps might be as far as Congress will go, an outcome that would not satisfy the Trump administration that is pushing for an independent Department of the Space Force.

“If I had to bet money, I would say we’re probably not going to get all the way there this time. But maybe we’ll get part of the way there,” Loverro said.

The Defense Department’s political appointees “support this the best I can tell,” Loverro said. But some leaders “look at this somewhat skittishly” because a new service could threaten other services’ turf. So it’s not clear if the support is heartfelt or simply a product of “political need.”

The biggest obstacles by far are the purse holders on Capitol Hill. Outside of a small group of space hawks in the House and Senate, “the rest of the Congress is problematic because they really have not studied the issue,” said Loverro. “If you haven’t examined the arguments, you don’t know the innards of DoD space, you start questioning why this is really necessary, why do we need all this bureaucracy? That usually becomes the fallback for the appropriators, who are the most important folks controlling the military.”

SHOW ME THE MONEY The debate will come down to how much this will cost and where the money will come from as the administration calls for reductions across all federal spending. “Right now, I would say the appropriators are not in support,” said Loverro. “They are not against, but they are not in support right now because they think it could be a big bill that they don’t want.”

Elon Musk made headlines recently when he endorsed Space Force. But the industry in general has been silent on the issue, which isn’t helping proponents make the case to skeptical lawmakers. The problem for DoD space contractors is that they don’t want to take sides and end up on the wrong team, Loverro said. Commercial space companies don’t necessarily care, because they serve a global market. “And quite frankly, it would be hard for us to explain to any of these companies exactly what we might do protect them in space anyway,” Loverro said.

In response to a caller’s question on how a Space Force might make a difference in people’s everyday lives, Loverro said it would not, at least not for a long time.

Even if Congress voted to establish a Space Force, a new service could take years to develop. “It’s going to take a while to get to a fully uniformed force that would be recognizable to the U.S. public,” said Loverro. “Would we feel the presence of a Space Force? I don’t know that we would.” To the general public, he noted, “everything that happens in space is invisible. And we’re not going to have any space ‘airshows.’”

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