WASHINGTON — Vice President Mike Pence recently was asked by Washington Post reporter Robert Costa: “What will the Space Force do?”

In his response, Pence did not run down a list of duties that might be assigned to the new military branch. But he did comment extensively on why he and the president feel strongly that a Space Force should be established.

It all started on the campaign trail in 2016, Pence recalled. “The president and I had a conversation about his interests in really reviving American leadership in space, and particularly when it came to human space exploration. … And we both shared a concern that while America continues to be dominant in space, in terms of technology, in terms of our accomplishments, that we were losing momentum in recent years; that America had essentially been consigned to low-Earth orbit, and we actually off-lined our own platforms when we grounded the shuttle program,” said Pence. “The president saw all of that as intolerable.”

Trump’s initial focus was on NASA and the civilian space mission, and along the way, he said, “it became very clear to us that it’s absolutely essential that America remained as dominant in space, from a national security perspective, as we are on the Earth. And that’s where the president conceived of the idea of a Space Force.”

“Does that mean adding weapons to space?” Costa asked, echoing a frequent criticism that a Space Force would accelerate the militarization of outer space.

Pence insisted that human space exploration is a civilian operation done by NASA and “that’s what we want it to be.” But the president also believes that “making sure that we have the security in space to advance human space exploration is the underpinning of the Space Force.”

A similar exchange took place on Tuesday during an interview with Politico’s Anna Palmer and Jake Sherman. Palmer asked Pence: “What’s the argument that you need a new Space Force and you can’t do it within existing structures within the government already?”

Pence again explained that the Space Force is “part of the president’s vision for really reinvigorating American leadership in space … and once again lead in human exploration.” He said Trump believes that by standing up a new military department, “that will ensure American security in space, even as we lead the world farther and faster into the vast beyond.”

It was made clear from Pence’s statements that the administration regards the Space Force and returning to the Moon as pieces of the larger puzzle of American leadership in space. This view, however, is not how other Space Force proponents have framed the issue.

A December 2017 white paper by the Office of Management and Budget titled “OMB Report on the Leadership, Management and Organization of the Department of Defense’s Space Activities” argued for the consolidation of disparate and scattered authorities in national security space to ensure there is accountability. OMB also argued that an independent service for space was the answer to the “conflict of interest” that exists in the Air Force with responsibilities for both air and space programs.

The themes of the OMB report appear in the rhetoric of Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Ala.), chairman of the House Armed Services Strategic Forces Subcommittee.

Rogers led a legislative push to stand up a Space Corps within the Department of the Air Force and has become an ardent supporter of Trump’s Space Force idea. But civilian space concerns were never part of Rogers’ rationale for spinning off a new military branch. In his first extensive comments on the subject at the 2017 Space Symposium, Rogers called out the Air Force’s management of space as the central problem, and alleged that space budgets were being being short-changed as rival powers step up developments of anti-satellite weapons. DoD needs an independent voice for space, Rogers argued, and he objected to the secretary of the Air Force being dual-hatted as the Pentagon’s principal space adviser.  “Does anyone think there might be a conflict of interest between space and the other mission priorities of the Air Force?” Rogers asked. “National security space is competing with other service priorities.” Rogers pushed legislation last year that removed the job of principal space advisor from the Air Force secretary.

Another strong backer of the Space Force is former Assistant Secretary of Defense for Space Policy Doug Loverro. Like Rogers, he has made the case for a new service first and foremost because space does not get proper attention in the current organization. “When the Chinese shot down their own satellite in 2007, both Air Force and non-Air Force leaders throughout the Pentagon could be heard saying that there was no way to defend space, and that we should move to non-space alternatives,” Loverro wrote in a SpaceNews op-ed. A key reason why a separate service is needed, he said, is because “space is not part of the Air Force identity.”

Different priorities in civilian, military space

Neither Rogers nor Loverro has raised civilian space concerns in their arguments for a Space Force. And that is how it should be, contends Todd Harrison, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and a supporter of a separate service for space.

“I think it’s important for people to remember why we separated civil and national security space in the first place,” Harrison told SpaceNews. “Civil space is focused on science and exploration.  It is something we do in partnership with other nations, friends and foes alike, for the benefit of all. National security space is focused on protecting our security interests and those of our allies and partners.”

The Space Force debate, said Harrison, is about “how we should organize, train, and equip our national security space forces to most effectively protect our security interests here on Earth. It should not be conflated with space exploration or the commercial development of space.”

Loverro told SpaceNews that the vice president talks about the issue in terms that resonate with the public. By framing the space discussion as a return to the glory days of American space exploration, Pence is speaking “in a language that more Americans understand,” Loverro said. “They don’t understand what the DoD does in space so the appeal towards exploration and commercial endeavors puts it in terms they understand.” It’s also worth remembering from history that “the military made the seas safe for exploration and commercialization. Even in fiction, such as Star Trek, the military linkage to exploration is clear. So while that may not be the nearest term impact of a Space Force, it is not entirely inconsistent with historical analysis to link the two.”

In the interview with Costa, Pence suggested that casting civilian and military space goals under the wide umbrella of U.S. leadership in space makes the message more appealing. “I think millions of Americans, whatever their politics, would agree that somewhere along the way we lost our vision and our passion for leadership in space,” he said. “And the president’s call for a renewal of our commitment to human space exploration, a return to the moon, reaching out at Mars, the establishment of a Space Force, I think that taps into that American aspiration that we are in a very real sense, a nation of pioneers. … I think the American people are excited to see us do that again.”

The administration official who would oversee a new military branch, Defense Secretary James Mattis, said on Tuesday that the Space Force would have both defensive and offensive missions. Speaking at the United States Institute of Peace with former National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley, Mattis said the Space Force would be charged to protect military satellites, including those like GPS that support the civilian economy. “We have to defend what we have in outer space that is used for navigation, communication, peaceful purposes, commerce, banking — all these kinds of things,” Mattis said. “But we’re going to have to be prepared to use offensive weapons in space should someone decide to militarize it and go on the offensive. You cannot simply play defense. No competitive sport in the world can just play defense and win.”

A spokesperson for the National Space Council said in a statement to SpaceNews that the vice president in recent media interviews “has taken the opportunity to convey the breadth of President Trump’s space efforts from before day one of the administration to today. These efforts include: growing space commerce and streamlining burdensome, outdated regulations; energizing our civil space exploration efforts to push beyond low Earth orbit and return to the Moon; and ensuring military space superiority by establishing the Space Force.”

These are “separate lines of effort that are all part of achieving the administration’s goal of U.S. leadership in space — a priority that President Trump and Vice President Pence are deeply committed to.”

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...