President Trump’s mission to create a Space Force appears to have flown too close to reality on wings made of bullshit.
Defense One reported on Wednesday that after months of frantically trying to figure out how to establish a new branch of the military dedicated to space-based operations, the Pentagon is now examining alternative ways to restructure the military. ABC later confirmed the shift in plans, which was requested by the White House in an October 26th memo. The fear, according to officials spoken to by Defense One, is that establishing the Space Force as a “separate but equal” branch of the military would not make it through Congress. Instead, the Pentagon will weigh several other options, including creating a new Space Force that would operate as part of the Air Force, similar to how the Marine Corps is technically a division of the Navy.
Space Force began as — and never ceased to be — a joke. “I was not really serious,” President Trump said of the idea during a speech to military personnel in California this March. “Then I said, what a great idea, maybe we’ll have to do that. That could be a big breaking story.”
It was, and if there’s one thing the president knows, it’s not to let a big breaking story run out of fuel. A few months later, he made it official, instructing the Pentagon to begin preparations after a meeting with the National Space Council at the White House. In August, Vice President Pence laid out the plan in detail, calling for “an elite group of joint warfighters, specializing in the domain of space.” He estimated a 2020 liftoff for the extraterrestrial military force, just in time for the reelection campaign to stock its online store with merch. Cartoonish logo prototypes circulated hours after Pence wrapped up his speech. “Space Force all the way!” Trump tweeted.
Trump campaign asks supporters to vote for the new Space Force logo pic.twitter.com/rIvd8AcHEh
— Kasie Hunt (@kasie) August 9, 2018
Despite the rhetoric coming out of the White House, the establishment of a Space Force would not have involved training a fleet of star fighters to barrel roll their way through zero gravity. Nor would it have anything to do with traveling to Mars, as one of the campaign’s prospective logo designs implied. In reality, its creation would have amounted to little more than a bureaucratic reorganization, albeit a massive one that would require plenty of time, energy and taxpayer money. In September, a memo written by Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson estimated the Space Force it would cost $13 billion over the first five years. A few weeks later, Foreign Policy reported that Trump was considering firing Wilson after the midterms because of what he perceived as an efforts to undermine the Space Force.
America’s military presence in space is currently overseen by several agencies, primarily the Air Force. The Space Force would have consolidated these efforts — which revolve mostly around satellite management — under a new, “separate but equal” branch of the armed forces. Because of the world’s now-intractable reliance on satellite technology, the Earth’s orbit has the potential to become a dangerous new theater for war. China and Russia have long been maneuvering for position beyond the atmosphere, and many worry that Trump’s calls for the U.S. to “dominate” space could escalate tension in a domain where international guidelines for conduct have yet to be sufficiently established.
Though this imperative to control space is how the White House rationalized its push for the Space Force, constructing an entirely new military branch could be counterproductive. Its function wouldn’t have varied that dramatically from that of what a group of lawmakers in 2017 called the Space Corps, the creation of which they tried to work into that year’s National Defense Authorization Act. The idea fell flat, with Defense Secretary James Mattis arguing it would add unnecessary “organizational layers at a time when we are focused on reducing overhead and integrating joint war fighting efforts.” A chorus of experts have opposed the Space Force on similar grounds.
Nevertheless, Trump’s vigor for the project only strengthened, sending the Department of Defense and the Air Force into overdrive trying to chart a course for the Space Force before Congress could have decided next year whether to give it the green light. It now appears that Congress, half of which is now under Democratic control, won’t be pressed to approve an entirely new branch of the military, although something resembling the 2017 Space Corps proposal could still be on the table. Regardless of how the division of labor is ultimately organized, the White House has insisted that the “Space Force” moniker be used in some capacity. After all, it’d be a shame for all those logo designs to go to waste.