A Primer On The Raging Battle For A New Pentagon Space Corps

As Defense Secretary James Mattis enters the debate, lawmakers are already deeply divided about creating a new military branch.

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The U.S. Congress is seriously considering creating a dedicated Space Corps, which would be the first time it has created an all new military branch in seven decades.  Despite the need to reform how the U.S. military treats operations in space, there is already a serious political battle brewing between lawmakers in favor of the proposal, other legislators who feel blindsided by the proposal, and the U.S. military itself.

On July 11, 2017, Secretary of Defense James Mattis wrote an unusual letter to specifically asking for support in killing the proposal. The retired Marine Corps general who commands immense bi-partisan support sent his message to Representative Mike Turner, an Ohio Republican who chairs the House Armed Services Committee’s Subcommittee on Tactical Air and Land Forces and is a member of the separate Subcommittee on Strategic Forces. The Space Corps plan only became widespread public knowledge in June 2017, when the House Armed Services Committee included the provision in their draft of the annual defense budget for the 2018 fiscal year. At the time of writing, it only exists in the House’s version of the proposed legislation, which lawmakers would have to reconcile with the Senate’s own draft bill before it could become law.

"I do not routinely comment on potential floor amendments of pending legislation. However, this particular issue warrants a response," Mattis reportedly explained in his letter to Turner. "I strongly urge Congress to reconsider the proposal of a separate service Space Corps."

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Air Force personnel inspect the X-37B experimental mini space shuttle after a mission.

What is a "space corps"?

To rewind quickly, here are the key components of the existing House plan. It calls for the creation of a Space Corps no later than Jan. 1, 2019. Though technically an independent service, this branch would be placed under the Department of the Air Force. The new Chief of Staff of the Space Corps would report to the Secretary of the Air Force, but would have equal authority within the Joint Chiefs of Staff. This proposed structure is virtually identical to the relationship between the U.S. Navy and the U.S. Marine Corps. But before anyone starts thinking about heavily armedSpace Marines," the overall concept is much more focused on streamlining the management of existing military space assets and the acquisition of new space-based capabilities. There's no fantastical talk for troops or spaceships to stand watch or fight in orbit.

“Nothing in this section would authorize or require the relocation of any facilities, infrastructure, or military installations of the Air Force,” the draft text declares. The Secretary of the Air Force would also retain their so-called “Milestone Decision Authority” with regards to the Space Corps’ acquisition of new systems, which would give them the ability to conduct the final review of “cost, schedule, and performance” of any particular program.

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This 1960s Army concept art is NOT what some American lawmakers are thinking when they talk about a new "space corps."

At present, the Air Force has its own Air Force Space Command (AFSPC) to handle these functions. The other existing branches have their own space components, as well. Though not specified in the House’s draft language, there is the clear suggestion that these other elements – including U.S. Army Space and Missile Defense Command (SMDC), Naval Network and Space Operations Command (NNSOC), Space and Naval Warfare Systems Command (SPAWAR), and U.S. Marine Corps Forces Strategic Command (MARFORSTRAT) – could see reduced roles or possibly be shuttered altogether. The proposal only promises not to prevent individual services from developing their own specific means of linking to space systems, which would include items such as terminals to connect to satellite communications and intelligence systems.

In addition, the provision says it would have no impact on the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO), the U.S. Intelligence Community’s main satellite intelligence arm, or the National Geo-Spatial Intelligence Agency (NGA), the Pentagon’s top map makers. It would eliminate the position of the Principal Department of Defense Space Advisor and the Defense Space Council. You can find the full text here.

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An artist's conception of the future XS-1 spacecraft.

The need to get serious about space

The plan, which could see the first new U.S. military service since the creation of the Air Force in 1947, is the brainchild of chairman of the House Armed Services Committee’s Strategic Forces Subcommittee, Alabama Republican Mike Rogers, as well as the subcommittee’s ranking Democrat, Representative Jim Cooper of Tennessee. It already has significant bi-partisan support, including from the House Armed Services Committee’s top chairman, Texas Republican Mac Thornberry, and his Democrat counterpart, Washington State’s Adam Smith.

“We have seen time and again that our ability to meet new challenges in space is lethargic at best,” Rogers said in an interview with Space News in April 2017, in which he alluded to his plans for what was then described as a “space force.” “What I want to do is take the organizational construct that currently exists, and start pulling out some of the problems.”

“You may have seen a hearing I had where I had the staff put together a chart of who all is involved in the acquisition process for space,” he continued. “It’s 60 different people who can say, ‘No’ – and yet nobody owns it. Nobody owns responsibility for what doesn’t happen, or doesn’t happen in a timely manner.”

From that complaint, it’s not hard to see how Rogers and his colleagues arrived at their specific Space Corps proposal. And the Congressman is right to highlight the growing importance of space to the U.S. military and its operations at home and abroad, both defensive and offensive. 

American forces are increasingly reliant on GPS for navigation and targeting, satellite communications, and space-based intelligence and early warning systems to both gather information and maintain a functional deterrent against potentially hostile countries. Countries such as Russia and China are well aware of this trend and have begun developing weapons and tactics to defeat these technological advantages in any future, high intensity conflict.

“When you look at China and Russia and how aggressive they’re being in space, we’ve got to outpace that,” Rogers told Space News. “We can never let ourselves become peers with those folks.”

The War Zone’s own Tyler Rogoway has explored these steadily emerging issues in depth, including in December 2016, where he wrote:

The Pentagon is facing threats in emerging mediums of combat. Cyber warfare may be grabbing all the headlines lately, but space—the place where so much of America’s unique combat capability is enabled from—is the US military’s glaring achilles heel. China and Russia are rapidly developing new capabilities to destroy, disable, blind or even hijack American satellites in orbit in an attempt to level the playing field should a peer-state conflict breakout. The US is slowly trying to adapt to this new reality by spinning up new ways to navigate and target in GPS-denied combat environments—as well as coming up with new communications techniques that work around reliance on satellite relays.

For years, anything but kinetic anti-satellite weaponry remained on the dark fringes of the defense world. Now these concepts and capabilities are emerging into the mainstream. These range from the mysterious X-37B miniature space shuttle, to DARPA led initiatives aimed at servicing other satellites in space or using space junk to create cheap communications satellites. Any of these could be used to monitor, jam, or even destroy enemy satellites without creating terrible debris fields that will limit future access to space. Other highly classified space technologies also likely exist.

Giving military space a seat at the table to equal land, sea, and air forces, along with creating a single manager for the Pentagon’s broad space-based capabilities, does definitely seem like a reasonable idea. It is the same basic logic behind a parallel debate about giving the same authority and stature to the American military commander in charge of cyber security. And, at base, the U.S. military is in broad agreement that improvements need to be made in how it handles this unique “theater of operations.” In May 2017, DARPA chose X-37B maker Boeing to build a new, potentially revolutionary military space plane called the XS-1.

"There is absolutely nothing we do as a joint force that isn’t enabled by space. I repeat: nothing," U.S. Air Force Gen. John W. Raymond, head of AFSPC, wrote in an op-ed, which also detailed his opposition to the Space Corps concept. "Protecting and defending our space capabilities is a national imperative."

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An Atlas V rocket carrying an NRO satellite blasts off from the Vandenberg Air Force Base's Space Launch Complex-3 in march 2017. 

Pushback against a new branch

But between Mattis’ letter and comments from Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson and Air Force Chief of Staff General David Goldfein since the formal proposal first emerged, the U.S. military feels a new Space Corps is not the right path forward. The broad contention is that if Rogers’ thinks 60 people is too big a bureaucracy, adding a brand new 61st doesn’t help things at all.

The proposal could only lead to a "narrower and even parochial approach," Mattis noted in his letter. The most obvious potential problem would be all new fighting for shares of the overall defense budget battles as the Space Corps and its parent service the Air Force debated the appropriate amount of money to include and where to put it in what would likely be shared funding requests.

“The Pentagon is complicated enough,” Secretary Wilson unequivocally told reporters on June 21, 2017. “This will make it more complex, add more boxes to the organization chart, and cost more money. And if I had more money, I would put it into lethality, not bureaucracy.”

“If you’re saying the word ‘separate’ and ‘space’ in the same sentence, you’re moving in the wrong direction,” General Goldfein said on the same day. “The secretary and I are focused how do we integrate space.”

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Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson, center, and Air Force Chief of Staff General David Goldfein, right, stand in front of a model of the X-37B.

The Air Force insists that it has identified the problem of lagging behind when it comes to development space capabilities and is working to address it. In April 2017, the service unveiled a plan to create a new three-star deputy chief of staff, as well as an associated staff, in an office referred to as “A-11” to “normalize” space issues. This new organization would speed up the decision making process with regards to procuring and employing space-based systems and improve the training and managing of the units involved in the mission. Separately, U.S. Strategic Command is working to expand its own joint space headquarters, with the Air Force's top space officer in charge of the new organization.

"The Air Force ... is once again leading the effort to meet these new strategic challenges and has made significant advances over the past couple of years," General Raymond added in his op-ed. The officer went on to argue in favor of giving the Milestone Decision Authority to the Air Force rather than a new branch, as well as increasing the portions of the defense budget set aside for space activities.

The pushback isn't limited to the U.S. military, either. Rogers has faced criticism from his own colleagues, many of who felt the proposal had come out of nowhere without the appropriate discussion and debate.

“This is honestly the first time I’ve heard about a major reorganization to our Air Force,” Representative Martha McSally, an Arizona Republican, retired Air Force officer, and member of the House Armed Services Committee, said as she and her colleagues went through their proposed defense budget on June 28, 2017. “This is sort of a shocking way to hear about a very major reorganization to our military, and I think it deserves at least a couple hearings and discussions on the matter at the full committee level.”

Afterward the markup process concluded, Representative Turner said he had admonished his staff for not knowing about the proposal sooner, but still called for additional time to fully review the idea and to hear from Mattis on the matter. “I chastised my staff and said, ‘How could I not know that this was happening?’ he said, according to Federal News Radio. “Maybe we do need a space corps, but I think this bears more than just discussions in a subcommittee.”

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Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson.

Space Corps supporters push back

Rogers has been incensed by the criticisms and calls to slow down his plans. He said that if anyone was in the dark about the proposal, it was the own fault, since he had started work on the idea back in September 2016. During the markup meeting nine months later, the Alabama lawmaker also pointed out that the idea of restructuring the military space chain of command first came up in 2001 under Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. In addition, the Government Accountability Office, a top federal watchdog, had conducted at least three separate reviews of the options, proposing among other things a companion to the Missile Defense Agency for space issues. “I don’t know where my friend from Ohio has been,” he directed at Representative Turner specifically.

Then, at a hearing on June 22, Rogers slammed the Air Force’s reaction, literally saying he was “pissed” in prepared remarks. “The Pentagon always resists change,” he declared. “It resisted the creation of the Air Force itself – great irony there. Now the Air Force leadership would have us trust them: I don’t think so. They just need a few more years to rearrange the deck chairs: I don’t think so. This is the same Air Force that got us into the situation where the Russians and the Chinese are near-peers to us in space.”

After the public meeting, he followed up his complaints with a threat to cut the Air Force out of the chain of command altogether. “Maybe we need a Space Corps Secretary instead of an Air Force Secretary leading space,” Rogers’ said, making it clear he has no intention of backing down on the proposal.

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Vice President Mike Pence visits the 50th Space Wing at Schriever Air Force Base, Colorado in June 2017.

So far, beyond Mattis’ letter, it’s unclear how President Donald Trump and other members of his administration feel about the proposal. Depending on their opinions on the matter, they might be able to sway the debate for good. The Trump administration, especially Vice President Mike Pence, has made it clear they see a need to improve and expand America’s military capabilities and other activities in space in general.

“I can assure you, under President Donald Trump, American security will be as dominant in the heavens as we are here on Earth,” Pence said in a speech at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida on July 6, 2017. “We will beat back any disadvantage that our lack of attention has placed and America will once again lead in space.”

Whether that leadership includes a Space Corps or not is still up for debate.