Matt Damon can finally breathe easy: When he inevitably finds himself stranded on some barren planet, the U.S. military can deploy the brand new Space Force to rescue him.
President Trump warned on Monday that adversaries such as China have already begun weaponizing space and are developing technologies to blind U.S. satellites and jam battlefield communications systems.
“You look at what they’re doing; they’ve given me rundowns; I’ve seen things that – you don’t even want to see what they’re doing and how advanced they are,” Trump said before signing the fiscal 2019 National Defense Authorization Act at Fort Drum, New York. “We will be so far ahead of them in a very short period of time. Your head will spin.”
Vice President Mike Pence has vowed that the Trump administration will establish Space Force as a fully independent military branch by 2020, a timeline that doesn’t give Congress much time to authorize the creation of a new service and appropriate funding for it.
Defense Secretary James Mattis has said he is in lockstep agreement with President Trump’s vision to create Space Force, even though the Pentagon opposed an effort in Congress last year to create an independent “Space Corps.”
“I was not going against setting up a Space Force,” Mattis told reporters on Sunday. “What I was against was rushing to do that before we define those problems. We’ve had a year, over a year in defining. And the orbitization of this solution in terms of institutionalizing forward momentum is very important.”
Still, it’s unclear what, precisely, the Space Force will actually do. Since your humble Pentagon correspondent is no rocket scientist, he asked smart people what challenges the Pentagon faces as it lays the groundwork for what will either become either a new military branch or a combatant command to focus on space. (A later story will look at the challenges of land navigation on planets without a true or magnetic North.)
According to Todd Harrison, of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Congress could approve funding for a separate Space Force in fiscal 2020 In that case, rather than increase defense spending, lawmakers could simply move money allocated for the other military services’ space activities to Space Force.
“I think the odds are fairly good that we’ll see Congress move in that direction next year,” Harrison told Task & Purpose. “Part of it depends on how the election goes in the fall and how much this is perceived as a Trump initiative versus a longer term reform effort.”
Mattis has vowed to work with Congress on Trump’s idea for Space Force, saying, “We’ll get it right.” Still, we might be many years away from seeing Space Force established as its own branch of the military, according to retired Air Force Lt. Gen. David Deptula, dean of The Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies.
“What has come out so far from the Pentagon’s look at this is that we ought to stand up a separate unified command made up of the components from each one of the services to reemphasize and revector focus on space,” Deptula told Task & Purpose. “I think that’s probably a very justifiable move. But if you take a look at the historical conditions for why we set up separate services, it’s going to be a while yet before those conditions are met.”
Indeed, Congress hasn’t approved a new military service since 1947, when the Air Force finally broke free of its Army shackles. As Deptula noted, the move came shortly after World War II, which demonstrated conclusively that airpower is more than just a supporting element for ground forces. By the end of the war, U.S. Army Air Forces was made up of nearly 2.4 million servicemen and roughly 80,000 aircraft.
While the bombing campaigns over Germany and Japan convinced Congress that airpower can achieve strategic results, there has been no such test run for U.S. space capabilities to help persuade lawmakers that it deserves total independence.
“There are a couple of vocal members in Congress, but frankly, I don’t think the rest of Congress is ready to take that step yet,” Deptula posited.
“Can we stop the launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile in boost phase from space today? The answer is no,” he continued. “Should we be able to? Yes. When are we going to be able to that? That’s to be determined. Standing up an armed service is different than re-allocating and emphasizing the importance of being able to control adversary activities in space.”
So before you get the ultimate “Space Force” moto tattoo or start growing a mullet that can be seen from orbit for your first day of space boot camp, wait until you hear from your favorite Pentagon correspondent about whether Space Force is a go. Also, somebody make sure Matt Damon doesn’t wander off.
Jeff Schogol covers the Pentagon for Task & Purpose. He has covered the military for 13 years and embedded with U.S. troops in Iraq and Haiti. Prior to joining T&P, he covered the Marine Corps and Air Force at Military Times. Comments or thoughts to share? Send them to Jeff Schogol via email at [email protected] or direct message @JeffSchogol on Twitter.