WASHINGTON — The original proponents of a separate military branch for space — Rep. Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.) and Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Ala.) — are poised for a victory after the House on Dec. 11 passed the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2020 by a vote of 377 to 48.

If it passes the Senate and is signed by the president, the NDAA will give the Air Force the green light to stand up a Space Force as the sixth branch of the U.S. armed forces. The Space Force would reside under the Department of the Air Force but would be an independent service, the same way the Marine Corps is part of the Department of the Navy.

During a meeting with reporters on Capitol Hill just a few hours before the House vote, Cooper and Rogers cautioned that the passage of the NDAA is only the first step of a long road, and warned that the Space Force could face significant growing pains.

Cooper and Rogers, chairman and ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee’s strategic forces subcommittee, wrote the language to establish a Space Corps under the Department of the Air Force in the 2018 NDAA but their bill was defeated in the House-Senate conference.

The language in this year’s NDAA is very similar to the Space Corps bill from two years ago. The only difference between the Space Corps of 2017 and the Space Force of 2019 is “just one word,” Cooper said.

Both argued then and continue to argue that it’s imperative that space programs and responsibilities be taken away from the Air Force and moved to an independent service to ensure they get enough attention.

The current leadership of the Air Force supports the separation of space into a new service, Cooper and Rogers said. But they worry that the Space Force will be vulnerable in its early days when political enemies could try to undermine it.

“This is like the birth of a new baby,” said Cooper. “Its mother is the Air Force for some time. But this child will grow up to be independent. It is just going to take some time.”

The initial standup of a Space Force headquarters could take about 90 days or less, the Air Force has said. Officials project it could take three to five years for the new service to get fully staffed and operational.

Cooper and Rogers launched their campaign for a space service five years ago after they received classified briefings from senior officials on the threats that U.S. satellites faced from Chinese and Russian weapons designed to jam or destroy spacecraft.

Both concluded that space needed to have its own branch in the military. “The Air Force was neglecting its space mission and not performing as well as the NRO [National Reconnaissance Office],” Cooper said. “We wanted a new independent service under the Air Force.”

“Our vision was not to spend much money, but to put Air Force space money under a new management,” said Cooper.

Both Cooper and Rogers said they will be closely monitoring every step of the reorganization. “We’re going to watch it like a hawk,” Cooper said.

Not Trump’s idea

Much of the public believes that President Trump conceived the idea of a Space Force but that is a misconception, Cooper said. “This is not a Trump idea. He tried to hijack it long after the House Armed Services Committee voted 60-1 to establish a Space Corps,” he added. “Trump’s blatant support of a Space Force does not make it a Republican idea.”

Rogers said the case to create a Space Force is “overwhelming.” American troops are highly dependent on satellites and for the last decade the United States has not done enough to counter the threats posed by China and Russia, he said. “It was obvious as we look back over the last decade or two that the Air Force was not making space capabilities a priority.”

As long as space remained in the Air Force, “it would be one of 11 other missions, never properly resourced and developed. That’s what motivated this. And Congress has come around after we couldn’t get it done two years ago.”

In Trump’s defense, Rogers said, the president’s embrace of the Space Force “re-energized it and gave us a second wind.”

Rogers also credited Vice President Mike Pence for bringing the Senate Armed Services Committee around after the SASC appeared reluctant to support creating a new military service. “The vice president really helped us on the Senate side,” said Rogers.

The SASC did get into the bill a provision it advocated to create a Senate-confirmed Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Space Acquisition and Integration, something that was not in the Space Corps bill two years ago and that Rogers and Cooper did not push for

“That’s politics,” said Rogers. “We needed the Senate on board” so the House had to compromise on the acquisition reorganization. “They got their input. I can’t comment on their thinking.”

Rogers praised Air Force Secretary Barbara Barrett for getting behind the Space Force and directing her staff to prepare to organize the new service within weeks after the NDAA is passed.

After meeting with Barrett recently, Rogers said he’s not worried about the Air Force being committed to this. There are concerns, however, about ensuring the Space Force gets enough resources and support, he said. “There is political pressure to not birth this baby. Some people have been trying to kill this baby in the womb for the last three years. I believe there’s going to be some who want to see it die in the crib over the next three years. We’re not going to let that happen.”

Rogers is convinced that if space stayed in the Air Force, it would always be a “battle of resources.” He said the Air Force was “robbing the space programs for air dominance programs.”

“Culturally that’s what they’re bred to do,” said Rogers. “It’s another reason why this had to happen. They allowed space to atrophy. That’s when we started to fall behind China and Russia. We want to get back to the dominant position we used to have.”

Concerns about bureaucracy, budgets

One of the reasons many lawmakers have been skeptical about a Space Force are concerns that it will add more overhead to an already bloated military bureaucracy. The NDAA compromise language that authorizes the Space Force also states that DoD cannot add new billets and all personnel will be transferred from within the Air Force.

“We’re not going to let it bloat with bureaucracy, particularly in the acquisition arena,” said Rogers. “That’s the thing that started us on this path. It was too slow. It was taking eight to 10 years from the time a COCOM [combatant command] said it needed a certain capability until they got the satellites up there,” he said.

The Space Force has to be more agile, he said. “We’re not going to let it blossom into a bureaucratic morass like we have in the other services.”

The NDAA assigns the current commander of U.S. Space Command Gen. John Raymond the role of acting Chief of Space Operations in charge of the Space Force until the president nominates a permanent four-star CSO. A year after the new branch is established, the CSO will have a seat on the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Congress understands the importance of space and will support more funding for military capabilities, Rogers said. The Space Force, estimated to grow to about 15,000 members over the next three to five years, will be by far the smallest service. “But it will be technology driven, not manpower driven,” he said.

Once the Space Force is stood up and functioning, “they will tell us what they have to have as far as assets to defeat Russia and China, and we’re going to fund it,” Rogers added.

“Once we have confidence space programs are going to be nurtured we are going to fund them,” Rogers said. “There will be more money going into space assets to deal with this.”

Up until now, the “biggest problem came from the Air Force which is fighter pilot dominated,” Rogers said. “Space has been their cookie jar they’ve gone for year to take money out of. In order for these programs to be properly funded there has to be a separate budget, also a separate culture.”

Air Force spokesman Brig. Gen. Ed Thomas said Dec. 11 in a statement to SpaceNews:

“We are excited about the prospect of legislation that will establish a U.S. Space Force. Air Force men and women have been advancing space capabilities for our nation since the 1950s, from space launch to missile warning to providing the blue dot on your phone via GPS satellites. But now it the time for a separate service with a singular focus on protecting space for all and deterring aggressors who might put our space capabilities at risk.”

Critics question need for Space Force

History shows that creating a separate military service will “only add bureaucratic barriers and largely serve its own ends, making it more difficult for the other branches to get the support they need,” said Dan Grazier, a military fellow at the Project On Government Oversight.

“Taxpayers would pay a premium to make the military less effective: analyses have found that even the most conservative version of this proposal would increase costs by $3.6 billion through 2024,”  Grazier said.

Laura Grego, a physicist and senior scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists, called the Space Force a “very bad idea.”

“At best a space force is a distraction from what is necessary to ensure space security in the face of rapid technological and geopolitical changes,” she said in a statement. “At worst, it would prompt a space arms race that would threaten U.S. military and civilian satellites, not protect them. Diplomacy, not bureaucratic reorganization is urgently needed.

Grego doesn’t buy the Cooper-Rogers argument that a separate military service is needed to counter Chinese and Russian anti-satellite weapons. “Pentagon officials emphasize that Russia and China are developing anti-satellite technology, but they leave out the fact that the United States is far ahead in sophistication as well as capacity of such technology,” she said. “In fact, having anti-satellite weapons will do very little to keep one’s own satellites safe from attack. And unconstrained space weapons development will lead to a competition that makes space more dangerous, costly and unpredictable to use.”

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...