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Trump Pushes Ahead With 'Space Force' Despite Hurdles

The Air Force is in charge of some military space activities, such as an X-37B experimental robotic space plane, shown here as it was launched by a rocket.
John Raoux
The Air Force is in charge of some military space activities, such as an X-37B experimental robotic space plane, shown here as it was launched by a rocket.

Updated at 5:32 p.m. ET

President Trump pushed forward Tuesday with his plan to launch a space force as a new branch of the military. But it would at first be under the umbrella of the Air Force, and it requires approval of Congress — which is far from certain.

This represents at least a temporary shift. Trump had stated that he wanted a space force that is "separate but equal" from the Air Force.

"America must be fully equipped to defend our vital interests. Our adversaries are training forces and developing technology to undermine our security in space," Trump said in the Oval Office as he signed a directive calling on the Pentagon to draft legislation.

A plan for the Space Force was announced by Trump last June. He wants it to be a sixth branch of the armed forces to ensure "American dominance in space."

Critics have suggested that it could further complicate military bureaucracy at great financial cost.

"Unless there is something that causes a massive expansion in the number of military personnel and amount of money we spend on space that would justify a new department, I honestly can't see that," said Brian Weeden, a former Air Force officer now at the nonprofit Secure World Foundation.

The White House says creating a space force would mitigate threats in space from other nations. "Potential adversaries are now advancing their space capabilities and actively developing ways to attack and destroy our use of space in a crisis or conflict," a senior administration official said, as NPR's Scott Horsley reported.

China, followed by Russia, are the main potential U.S. rivals in space, said
John Logsdon, professor emeritus at the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University. "I think China has developed the capability to attack our forces in order to defend itself," he said. "So whether you call that offensive or defensive they have the ability to wage an attack against U.S. space assets."

As envisioned by Trump, the Space Force's chief of staff would be a member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and would be overseen by a civilian Air Force undersecretary for space.

It would be akin to the structure of the Marine Corps, which is a part of the U.S. Department of the Navy but with separate representation on the Joint Chiefs.

The senior administration official said that if the plan is approved by Congress, the Space Force could eventually fully separate from the Air Force, as Horsley reported.

The "force would consolidate command of the military's existing satellite systems into a single command. Those include reconnaissance satellites, GPS, missile-warning systems and communications platforms," as NPR's Geoff Brumfiel reported last year.

Todd Harrison, director of the Aerospace Security Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told Brumfiel that the Space Force would not actually involve troops in space. "There's no space marines; there's no people flying around with jetpacks," Harrison says. In an opinion piece for Breaking Defense, he recently argued that a space force is "needed to consolidate authority and responsibility for national security space in a single chain of command."

The Air Force is currently responsible for many of the U.S. space-related activities. Last September, Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson said in a memo that establishing a space force would cost some $13 billion over a five-year period.

"The costs here are additive costs," she told Defense News. "They are not just the movement of other capabilities and consolidate them. To stand up a department that's responsible for recruiting and training and planning and programming and budgeting and all of the leadership requirements that a department has, it's a major undertaking. It's a bold idea."

If the legislation passes, it would be the first time Congress approved a new branch of the military since 1947, when it created the Air Force.

As Horsley reported, administration officials on Tuesday did not clarify the cost of a future force. They did say establishing a new headquarters would cost less than $100 million. "Other money would come from consolidating existing space functions within the Space Force," Horsley added. "The president's budget might also propose additional money to cover the cost of enhanced military space functions."

While the idea of a space force is a crowd pleaser at Trump's rallies, it has been met with skepticism or even ridicule among other audiences. The Washington Post rounded up cartoons from around the country about the idea.

And Netflix has announced that Steve Carell is going to star in a new comedy series about the idea. It's a "Workplace comedy centered around the people tasked with creating a sixth branch of the armed services... Space Force."

NPR's Greg Myre reported this story for broadcast.

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Merrit Kennedy is a reporter for NPR's News Desk. She covers a broad range of issues, from the latest developments out of the Middle East to science research news.