President Donald Trump announces that he is directing the Pentagon to create the “Space Force” as an independent service branch. (June 18)
U.S. Rep. Mac Thornberry backs creating a space force not only to defend the high frontier but also to secure earthbound humans’ access to satellite connections key in their everyday lives.
Wichita Falls’ congressman said threats to U.S. satellites from other countries are the big issue now.
Among those relying on satellite connections are drivers filling up their gas tanks and farmers working in the field, said Thornberry, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee.
“The list goes on and on,” the Republican from Clarendon said. “I think initially the primary focus of a space force will be to defend our ability to use space for military and nonmilitary purposes.”
Thornberry noted that there is no military manned spacecraft to defend U.S. satellites.
He and Trump both aim to increase the national security focus on earth’s orbit and beyond, but it’s not clear yet what form that will take.
In last year’s National Defense Authorization Act, the House version called for the Air Force to create a space corps.
Concerns were high about other nations outpacing the U.S.
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“We … had some idea about what some of our adversaries were doing in space,” Thornberry said. “There was a lot of concern that whereas once we were the preeminent power in space, that we were losing that position rapidly.”
The space corps would have avoided duplicating efforts by relying on the existing AF bureaucracy, he said. House lawmakers had the same model in mind as the Marine Corps, which falls under the umbrella of the Navy.
The initiative, however, ran into strong opposition from both the Senate and the Air Force and didn’t survive in the final 2018 NDAA.
“But based on what the president has said, I think the Department of Defense has to be supportive now,” Thornberry said. “The good news is, we’ve got a head start.”
In last year’s NDAA, lawmakers reached a compromise, requiring the DOD to submit a proposal on how to move forward on a space force.
“We’re supposed to have that plan later this year,” Thornberry said. “As I say, it’s fortunate because basically the department has gotten a head start on planning how to get there.”
With the study still pending, President Trump took the podium at a meeting of the National Space Council June 18 at the White House.
He announced the coming creation of a stand-alone space force as a sixth branch of the armed forces.
“We must have American dominance in space. So important,” Trump said in remarks before the space council.
He ordered the DOD and the Pentagon to set to work establishing such a force.
“We are going to have the Air Force, and we are going to have the Space Force — separate but equal,” he said. “It is going to be something.”
Thornberry said he thinks Congress and the military must be careful about moving too slowly toward a space force.
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“I don’t think that’s what the president intends,” Thornberry said.
Lawmakers have a role in a reorganization of the military that a space force would entail.
“To do it, it will require action by Congress, and that’s part of the reason we are anxious to get this report from the Pentagon,” he said.
The House version of the 2019 NDAA proposes yet more routes to space-bound national security:
- The Pentagon is to create a U.S. Space Command reporting to the U.S. Strategic Command.
- A new numbered Air Force will be established to carry out warfighting in space.
- The Secretary of the Air Force is charged with making and putting in action a plan to ratchet up the size and quality of the Air Force’s space cadre.
This month, House and Senate lawmakers are working to reconcile the two versions of the bill.
It’s not clear yet if the House’s space defense measures will make it into the conference report to be put to a final vote in Congress.
Thornberry said a new national security initiative for space could mean more costs, but he doesn’t think costs have to rise steeply.
In 2017, lawmakers directed the AF to improve its space operations, he said.
“In the last year or so, they have made some real progress,” Thornberry said.
The service has, for instance, made significant changes in how it buys satellites, he said.
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