There is also some bad news: That may wind up being the only place where it exists for the foreseeable future.
Despite Trump’s repeated boasts about it at campaign rallies, its use as a fundraising tool by his campaign, and the money it brings in for his re-election through the sale of Space Force-branded merchandise, congressional oversight and spending committees seem skeptical that the country needs a full sixth branch of the military — to do something the Air Force’s Space Command has already been doing for decades.
“We were talking about this long before I think the president knew the Space Force could possibly even have existed,” Rep. Adam Smith, the Washington Democrat who chairs the House Armed Services Committee, recently told reporters. “He grabbed onto it. But it isn’t about him.”
It is unclear whether Trump, who has demonstrated a lack of knowledge about a wide variety of government agencies and programs, knew before he began talking about a space force that the Air Force Space Command has been performing that same mission since it was created during the Reagan administration in 1982.
Indeed, from his first public mention of Space Force as an offhand remark in a March 2018 speech to his most recent comments at the Air Force Academy graduation last month, Trump has never even acknowledged the existence of the office that provides “resilient and affordable space capabilities” to the military, including the launching of rockets and support for navigation, weather and communications satellites.
In fact, the timeline of key Space Force events shows that Trump has worked faster to make money off the idea for his campaign than he has to push the policy through Congress.
“I think the president has done a terrible job of communicating this. Because he’s conflated civilian space with national security space,” said Todd Harrison, a space policy expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies who, like Smith, supports the idea of setting up a separate office to handle space operations exclusively. “He has conflated these things with his campaign emails and his stickers ... It has made people think this is a joke.”
A Smoke And Mirrors Photo Op
A year ago Tuesday, Trump held a photo opportunity at the opening of a meeting of the National Space Council, which is headed, as in its past iterations, by the vice president.
Trump told military commanders, Vice President Mike Pence, and the assembled press gathered in the East Room that his action that day was “a big statement,” and that his Space Force was “so important” for American dominance in space in the years to come.
“I’m hereby directing the Department of Defense and Pentagon to immediately begin the process necessary to establish a space force as the sixth branch of the armed forces. That’s a big statement,” Trump said. “We are going to have the Air Force and we are going to have the Space Force — separate but equal. It is going to be something.”
He got everyone ready for the big moment — “Here’s a big one. Right? Would anybody like me not to sign this?” — and then set his black marker to parchment and then, as is his custom, held up his signed order for everyone to admire as his staff applauded.
Trump got the headline he obviously wanted. The White House pool report from the event stated that Trump “signed an executive order establishing the Space Force as an independent, co-equal military branch.”
Except the directive he signed did no such thing. Instead, it directed the government to work with industry to create a “space traffic management” plan to limit and track orbital debris — a hazard to all spacecraft, including those with humans aboard, in low earth orbit.
Trump critics point to news reports the previous day about the administration’s child separation policy and say Space Force was merely a way to deflect attention from that. One White House official, though, on condition of anonymity scoffed at the idea that there was that level of planning involved: “That’s not the way he thinks.”
Congress Remains Skeptical
Despite Trump’s order to his Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Joseph Dunford to “Let’s go get it, general,” it was three months before Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson released even a memo outlining a plan to do so.
Trump in February signed another directive, this one actually requesting that the military start the process of creating a space force, but within the Air Force — where the existing Space Command already resides. Further, a joint “combatant command” for space would coordinate spacecraft operations in a military conflict across the various branches, much the way commands already exist for geographic regions and for certain mission areas such as Cyber Command or Special Operations Command.
Those ideas, however, were not new. In fact, a bipartisan team of House members had proposed basically that same concept in 2017, calling it the “Space Corps.” Trump’s Department of Defense and Air Force at the time had opposed the plan, arguing that creating a new bureaucracy was not helpful.
That is the same argument that lawmakers from both parties in both chambers are making two years later following the administration’s reversal on the concept.
At an April hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Maine Sen. Angus King asked the testifying Defense Department officials why any change was necessary at all. “In Maine, there are certain basic principles of life. One is you don’t drive on the ice after April 15th. Second is you hate the Yankees. And third is, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” said King, who is an independent but who caucuses with Democrats. “I don’t understand how adding a box to an organizational chart is going to give us some kind of qualitative military edge.”
Arkansas Republican Sen. Tom Cotton, generally known for his support of Trump, was equally skeptical. “Unless as Senator King said, we’re going to have a large number of actual soldiers in space fighting and they need a different set of skills, this is primarily going to be about technology and acquisitions and so forth,” Cotton said. “So I think what a lot of us on the committee are trying to figure out is what’s the incremental advantage of having a separate space force.”
Both the House and Senate are moving forward with the concept, although with many strings attached and with a proposed budget nowhere near the $2 billion over five years that Trump asked for in his request this spring. The House version of the National Defense Authorization Act does not even call it “Space Force” but reverts to the original name “Space Corps,” as envisioned by Reps. Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.) and Mike Rogers (R-Ala.) in 2017.
“That’s the balance we’re trying to strike. Does it require a separate service?” Smith said. “Those discussions will be ongoing until we get through all of this.”
Space Force As Campaign Gimmick
While actual legislative work to implement Space Force has been slow, Trump’s use of it as a campaign gimmick leapt off the launchpad.
Trump, who flew around the country last summer and autumn campaigning for Republican congressional candidates, touted his call for a space force as one of his many accomplishments — typically sandwiched between increased spending for the military and his backing out of the nuclear agreement with Iran.
At a June 20, 2018, rally in Duluth, Minnesota, Trump’s mention of it got the crowd chanting: “Space Force! Space Force!”
“We need it! We need it!” Trump answered.
At an Oct. 26 rally in Charlotte, North Carolina, Trump claimed he had “tremendous support” for his idea. “People get so excited with the Space Force. But that’s where it’s at. I’m not doing it as fun and games. That’s where it’s at.”
His campaign, meanwhile, began monetizing the idea. On Aug. 9, a few hours after Pence’s speech at the Pentagon about Space Force, Trump campaign manager Brad Parscale sent out a fundraising email: “As a way to celebrate President Trump’s huge announcement, our campaign will be selling a new line of gear.”
He asked Trump supporters to vote for one of the sample logos the campaign designed, some of which closely resemble current and former NASA logos: “We have to make a final decision on the design we will use to commemorate President Trump’s new Space Force ― and he wants YOU to have a say.”
Not long afterward, the campaign indeed began selling Space Force merchandise on its website ― $30 for a T-shirt and $35 for a cap. Those, as well as pens and bumper stickers, remain on sale at the campaign’s store in the basement of Trump Tower, adjacent to Trump Grill.
Trump himself has been vague about why he believes Space Force is necessary. During that June 18, 2018, announcement, he said: “In every way, there is no place like space.”
Three months earlier, during a visit to the Marine Corps Air Station in Miramar, California, Trump conceded he was only joking when he first mentioned it to his staff. “You know, I was saying it the other day, because we are doing a tremendous amount of work in space. I said, ‘Maybe we need a new force. We’ll call it Space Force.’ And I was not really serious. Then I said, ‘What a great idea. Maybe we’ll have to do that. That could happen.’”
During his campaign rallies, Trump’s most frequent rationale for a space force was that space is “where it’s at” — but without any explanation of what, precisely, needed to be happening there.
At other times, Trump has spoken as if he believes that his Space Force actually would include armed, orbiting space soldiers — something no expert or military official has suggested is feasible or even particularly useful.
“The Space Force. And that’s what it’s all about, folks. You look at what’s happening. I’m not just talking rockets to the moon and to Mars. I’m talking about defense,” Trump told a Mississippi rally audience in October. “I’m talking about ― that’s where it is. It’s in space. Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, Coast Guard, right? Space Force!”
The White House declined to discuss Trump’s level of awareness of space flight and orbital mechanics.
“If he thinks that, he’s completely wrong,” CSIS’ Harrison said regarding the notion of maintaining an armed force in orbit.
And Smith, in his comments to reporters, acknowledges that Trump’s interest in the matter has made it harder for him to get his Democratic colleagues who now control the House to approve what he believes are important reforms.
“This is not President Trump’s idea. Of the many, many, many bad ideas this president has had, of the many bad things he has done, and the many ways we should challenge him, don’t think of this as, ‘If you’re for the Space Force, that means you 100% support President Trump,’” Smith said. “We’re going to continue to have that negotiation and debate based on that policy. Not on the politics of whether you want to support something that President Trump said at one of his rallies about a Space Force.”