White House: Space Force under the Air Force only a ‘first step,’ a separate department not off the table
Updated Jan. 29 with White House comments
WASHINGTON — A draft space policy directive that President Trump is expected to sign in the coming weeks orders the Defense Department to establish a U.S. Space Force as a sixth branch of the U.S. armed forces within the Department of the Air Force.
But the policy memo also states that a separate “Department of the Space Force” will need to be created sometime in the future.
The Pentagon is wrapping up a legislative proposal and budget request for fiscal year 2020 that it will submit to the White House for approval. The proposal recommends creating a Space Force with its own four-star chief of staff and a civilian undersecretary of space under the umbrella of the Department of the Air Force. This setup, however, is only a “first step toward a future military department for national security space,” says a draft of Space Policy Directive-4. A copy of the draft labeled “predecisional” was reviewed by SpaceNews.
The establishment of the U.S. Space Force would be the Trump administration’s fourth Space Policy Directive, or SPD-4.
The Pentagon’s recommendation to organize the Space Force under the Department of the Air Force, sources said, was driven by political necessity as many members of Congress indicated they would oppose creating a costly new military department. Standing up the new branch as part of the Department of the Air Force could be an easier sell as a similar structure was endorsed nearly two years ago by the House Armed Services Committee in a “Space Corps” provision in the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2018. The Air Force at the time pushed back on the proposal and it was later voted down by the Senate.
The Trump administration is now banking on former proponents of the Space Corps, including Democrats, to support the establishment of the Space Force under a similar construct as what House Armed Services proposed.
But SPD-4 makes it clear that the Space Force under the Department of the Air Force would be a temporary arrangement. After the Space Force is established, the SPD-4 draft says, the secretary of defense is required to conduct a “periodic review” and recommend a timeline for spinning off the Space Force into its own military department.
“As the U.S. Space Force develops and as required for U.S. national security, it will become necessary to create a separate Department of the Space Force in the future,” says the policy memo. “This Department will take over some or all responsibilities for the U.S. Space Force from the Department of the Air Force.” The secretary of defense “will conduct periodic review to determine when to recommend that the President seek legislation to establish such a Department.”
An administration official insisted that the White House never took a separate department off the table in the course of the Space Force discussions. A separate Department of the Space Force is “very much on the table,” the official said, and the administration is moving forward in accordance with the president’s direction.
The language in SPD-4 tries to balance political reality with the president’s insistence that the Space Force should be an independent department. Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan has said the Pentagon’s Space Force proposal minimizes overhead costs. According to unofficial estimates, a “fully loaded” military department could be at least twice as costly as a Space Force organized under the Department of the Air Force.
House Armed Services Committee Chairman Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.) said in a C-SPAN interview Jan. 25 that the Space Force “has to be cost effective.”
Smith has been a critic of the Air Force as a steward of national security space. He supported the Space Corps legislation that his committee advanced but ever since Trump seized on the initiative, Smith has said he would oppose a separate military department for space. He said he agrees with the “idea that we ought to have a special emphasis on space.” However, “I do not agree with a separate space department. And even the White House and Pentagon have backed off of that.”
Smith noted that the Pentagon is now “proposing to have a Space Corps, sort of, still under the Air Force.” But he stopped short of saying which way he would vote if Congress moves to take up the Space Force legislative proposal. “I want to emphasize space,” said Smith. “I don’t want to create more bureaucracy for the sake of bureaucracy.”