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Space Force may finally become real — but it won’t be an overhaul

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A space corps called Space Force

President Trump’s long trumpeted pet project, the creation of a new branch of the military called the Space Force, is now finally on the cusp of becoming a reality, thanks to a new bill that may be voted on today by Congress. If it does go into effect, the bill will stand up a Space Force that is much different from what Trump originally proposed — one that won’t require any substantial restructuring within the military. But it’s possible that this watered-down Space Force could eventually lead to changes in how the military conducts its space operations in the long term.

The new provisions are included in the 2020 National Defense Authorization Act, or NDAA, which determines the military’s responsibilities and strategies as well as authorizes funds for the coming year. The bill, if approved, would establish the Space Force as the sixth branch of the United States Armed Forces, making it the first new military branch to be created in more than 70 years. However, the Space Force will still be housed within the already established US Air Force, similar to how the Marine Corps resides within the US Navy. The Air Force is already responsible for conducting most of the military’s space-based programs, and the Space Force will simply carry on those same functions under the Air Force umbrella.

That is a far cry from what President Trump initially proposed. In June 2018, Trump directed the Department of Defense to establish the Space Force as something independent of the Air Force. “We are going to have the Air Force, and we’re going to have the Space Force — separate but equal,” he said during the surprise announcement, made during a meeting of the National Space Council. “It is going to be something so important.”

In reality, the pending Space Force would be more of a corps than a force, and it shouldn’t require any major budget increases to implement. In fact, much of the personnel within the Air Force who currently work on space will simply be transferred to the Space Force, according to the NDAA. In essence, it’s relatively minimal restructuring, but it could be just enough to foster a culture change within the military. “In the immediate future, it’s a little change, a little step,” Kaitlyn Johnson, an associate fellow and associate director of the Aerospace Security Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, tells The Verge. “But I think it has potential if given the time to grow and the real effort to distinguish it and support the space professionals that are there.”

What Space Force will do

The Space Force is actually one of a couple of ways the Trump administration has sought to restructure space activity within the military. In August, the White House also stood up a new unified combatant command within the military, called US Space Command, aimed at focusing entirely on military space. Space Command isn’t exactly new; it existed before, between 1985 and 2002, until it was folded into US Strategic Command. But it now exists as its own separate entity once again.

The function of Space Command, or USSPACECOM, differs from Space Force. As a unified combatant command, USSPACECOM is responsible for space warfighting. The organization decides how to utilize the domain of space in the best interests of national security, whether that’s providing space-based communications capabilities for troops overseas or surveilling certain portions of the globe. The Space Force, on the other hand, is responsible for “operating, training, and equipping” all of the space assets that USSPACECOM needs. That entails acquiring the right surveillance or communications satellites, getting them into space, and training people to operate those vehicles.

President Donald Trump Announces Establishment Of The U.S. Space Command Photo by Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images

Up until now, those functions, known as OTE, have mostly been handled by the Air Force Space Command, a division within the Air Force. If the NDAA is enacted, the Space Force will take on all of the Air Force Space Command’s responsibilities as well as most of its personnel and any other members of the Air Force that are reassigned to the new force. No new positions for military personnel can be created within the Space Force, according to the NDAA. That means a lot of shuffling personnel around. “This is starting out by rebranding all the Air Force Space Command people to be Space Force,” Brian Weeden, director of program planning for the Secure World Foundation, an organization that promotes sustainable space solutions, tells The Verge.

There are still appropriations to think about, too. Though the NDAA will establish the Space Force, the organization hasn’t received any funding yet. But it may be easier to get funding for the branch if it’s mostly just taking personnel from the Air Force Space Command.

So what’s different?

While it may feel as though the Air Force Space Command is simply getting a new name, there are a few key distinctions. For one, the Space Force would get full Title 10 authority, which would give the branch the ability to make its own decisions about operating and training people to use equipment. Under the current regime, the Air Force is the one with Title 10 authority, and it will make decisions based on recommendations from the Air Force Space Command. “That organization doesn’t already have its own independent decision making authority, and this will kind of elevate that out,” says Johnson.

The NDAA also establishes that the Space Force will be run by a newly created chief of space operations who will report directly to the US secretary of the Air Force. This CSO will also be a member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, a group of senior military personnel that advises the president. So while the CSO will report directly to the Air Force Secretary, they will also have a way to reach the president without a mediator. “They can give some independent advice to the President, alongside the other chiefs,” says Weeden. “But they’re under the authority of the Secretary of the Air Force when it comes to making decisions.”

That may seem like a weird hierarchy, but it could be important for establishing the Space Force as its own unique entity. “Part of the argument for Space Force was that space was kind of getting lost within the Air Force, with its focus on air dominance,” says Johnson. “Elevating the Space Force by giving it its own four star general a seat at the table at the Joint Chiefs is elevating that voice of space to a higher priority.” For now, it seems as though Gen. John Raymond, who oversees USSPACECOM, will also serve as the Space Force CSO for the first year of operations.

The Space Force will get a few other key personnel as well, such as an assistant secretary focused on making space acquisitions or acquiring new space technologies. Another assistant secretary would help oversee space warfighting.

Is this really a Space Force?

It may be a Space Force in name, but this organization certainly looks very similar to another organization that was proposed in 2017 by Reps. Jim Cooper (D-TN) and Mike Rogers (R-AL). The two called for the creation of a Space Corps that would live within the Air Force and focus specifically on space training. Though it has a few differences, the Space Force will function in almost the exact same way. “Mike Rogers has been full of glee and grinning like a child on Christmas because they’ve kind of gotten this through, and I know it’s been a lot of effort between him and Jim Cooper — a bipartisan effort in the House to really get this done,” says Johnson.

Now it just remains to be seen if this will have any lasting impact on the military’s way of handling space. Much of the argument for reorganizing military space revolved around how slow it can be to acquire new tech and the difficulty of thinking outside the box. There was a fear that the US military would fall behind in space and its space assets could become vulnerable to foreign adversaries. The idea was that an organization focused specifically on space could come up with better strategies and ideas than one overseen by those more interested in aviation.

Will reorganizing part of the Air Force into the Space Force change that? It’s possible. “I think leaving a little bit of that Air Force culture, dominated often by fighter pilots, behind will allow the Space Force to really build its own cadre of professionals who have spent eventually all of their career in Space Force and doing space missions and understanding the domain specifically,” says Johnson.

However, there are still other areas of military space to think about. The Air Force isn’t the only military organization to operate space missions. The Army, Navy, and National Reconnaissance Office also operate satellites and use satellite data. The Space Force won’t reshuffle any of the space personnel within those organizations at the moment. It’s specifically focused on the Air Force for now, and it’s mostly just moving people around and giving them a new boss. “It’s a new organizational chart,” says Weeden. “And there’s an opportunity for them to change the culture for buying satellites and training and operating them. It’s going to take a long time to do, but this is really the first step down that path.”