After a brief pause in Space Force talk from the administration, President Trump signed a memo today directing the Department of Defense to create a new separate combatant command, called Space Command. Additionally, Vice President Mike Pence announced this morning that President Trump plans to sign a directive related to the establishment of the Space Force — a new branch of the military — in the coming days. While the President can create the US Space Command, Congress must still create new legislation in order to establish the Space Force.
Establishing both the Space Force and US Space Command have been major talking points for the Trump administration throughout the last year. In August, Pence gave a speech in which he recommended creating a US Space Command, and Trump has been parroting the merits of a Space Force since March. So today’s announcement doesn’t come as much of a surprise.
The establishment of these two organizations would rearrange the military’s current bureaucracy for handling national security space missions, which mostly revolve around launching satellites for surveillance, communications, and navigation. Currently, the personnel responsible for launching and operating military satellites are spread throughout various branches of the Defense Department, including the US Air Force, the Navy, and the National Reconnaissance Office. The Space Force would take a portion of these people and put them under their own umbrella, separate from the other branches.
The US Space Command would be the organization in charge of space warfighting, or deciding what types of space assets are needed to help the Defense Department meet its needs. Currently, this is handled through US Strategic Command (USSTRATCOM), the group mostly responsible for nuclear deterrence. A subunit known as the Joint Force Space Component command handles space. The Trump administration, however, wants to take those personnel and create a complete new combatant command separate from USSTRATCOM.
The US Space Command isn’t new. This separate combatant command actually existed between 1985 and 2002, before it was combined with USSTRATCOM. And in recent years, lawmakers have mostly agreed that we should return the US Space Command in some form. Congress’ most recent National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) — legislation which outlines the Defense Department’s policies for each year — also called for the creation of a US Space Command, as a subunit of USSTRATCOM. Trump signed the 2019 NDAA into law in August.
So what’s the difference between what the NDAA outlines and what Trump wants to do? It mostly boils down to a different reporting structure. Under the Administration’s plan, the head of a separate US Space Command, a four-star general, would report directly to the US Secretary of Defense and the President. Under the NDAA, the head of a US Space Command would report to the head of USSTRATCOM — currently, General John Hyten. Either way, the priorities will stay the same and the new US Space Command will likely include the majority of the personnel currently working within the Joint Force Space Component command. “There is a change in authority and it does elevate the position, but practically speaking, day to day, it’s already the same people that are doing this mission,” Brian Weeden, a space expert at the Secure World Foundation, a nonprofit that specializes in space security, tells The Verge.
The White House claims that Trump has the authority to create a separate US Space Command under section 161 of title 10 under the United States Code. So it doesn’t seem that Congress needs to act for this to become a reality. However, it’s unclear how this will play out exactly, given that the NDAA outlines a different kind of US Space Command than the one the President wants. The administration’s proposed budget for the command should be unveiled in the president’s budget request for 2020.
Meanwhile, the Space Force definitely still needs an act of Congress to move forward. Its creation was controversial before the midterm elections, and it’s unclear if it will receive much support now that Democrats control the majority in the House of Representatives. The administration also plans to include money for the Space Force in the president’s 2020 budget request. A leaked memo from US Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson suggested that it would cost $3.3 billion for fiscal year 2020 to set up the Space Force.