Washington • Rep. Chris Stewart spent 14 years as a pilot in the U.S. Air Force, claiming three world speed records.
So one might think that the Utah Republican would be steadfast in defending the Air Force’s leading role in space missions as President Donald Trump eyes efforts to create a Space Force to handle military operations outside Earth’s atmosphere.
“Some people kind of expected me to protect the Air Force entities, [because it could] weaken the Air Force if we separated. And I didn't take that position,” Stewart said in a recent interview. “I was like, 'Maybe it's a good idea. Let's look at it. But let's be thoughtful about it.'”
The Pentagon last week began to build Trump’s Space Force, though Congress will still have to take steps to make it a new branch of the military.
For now, the Defense Department is setting up three of the four parts of the Space Force, a new command structure, a joint agency to purchase satellites and an operation for possible war in outer space that will include military members from the four other service branches, Defense One reported Tuesday.
A draft Pentagon report, obtained by the publication, says the Defense Department would establish an 11th unified combatant command — similar to the U.S. Special Operations Command, which draws members from all branches — for the Space Force.
Congress, though, would have to pass legislation to make the Space Force a military branch on par with the Air Force, Army, Navy, Marine Corps and Coast Guard.
It’s unclear if there’s support in Congress to pass such a measure.
“We’re still kind of weighing that,” Stewart said. “I really don’t know what the right answer is right now, but I want to be thoughtful about it. It’s worth considering, but it’s not something we should do overnight.”
It may take years, according to some.
A sixth branch
Trump, in June, directed the Pentagon to create a Space Force to ensure American dominance in outer space. The president said politics and bureaucracy have, for too long, “squandered” dreams of exploration and discovery, and it was important for America to be leading in space technology.
“We don’t want China and Russia and other countries leading us,” Trump said at a White House event with the National Space Council. “When it comes to defending America, it is not enough to merely have an American presence in space. We must have American dominance in space. So important.”
Trump, as he promised in his 2016 campaign, said there needed to be a sixth armed forces branch and turned to Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to carry out the assignment.
“We got it,” Dunford replied.
“Let's go get it, general,” Trump said.
But there’s only so much the Defense Department can do on its own, such as changing the command structure to create a one-stop shop for buying satellites and bringing the military branches together on issues related to space.
The idea needs congressional buy-in and, so far, the House and Senate are biding their time.
Congress has already passed the defense spending bill for the coming year, meaning any funding for a new military branch — and authority to create one — will have to wait until 2019.
Sen. James Inhofe, an Oklahoma Republican and a top member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, told Defense One last week that a Space Force may be a topic next year. Not that he’s a big fan.
“I’m opposed to [creating a sixth branch],” Inhofe told the publication. “I know the president has strong feelings. I think we can do that without a new branch.”
Utah's members aren't sold on it either.
“I don’t do this very often, but I’m going to play the new-guy card and say, I don’t have a clue,” said Rep. John Curtis, a freshman Republican from Utah. “I haven’t got past the surface on that one.”
Rep. Rob Bishop is awaiting a report from the Defense Department before deciding whether to support the idea.
Rep. Mia Love’s office says she will review any legislation brought to the House and talk to experts before forming an opinion, but she does want to know how the United States can best protect national security.
“Representative Love is concerned about reports from the Armed Services Committee that there are nations who are researching ways to undermine U. S. satellite communications,” spokesman Rich Piatt said.
Sen. Mike Lee's office said he didn't have a position on the issue yet. Sen. Orrin Hatch's office did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Reps. Mike Rogers, R-Ala., and Jim Cooper, D-Tenn., have been leading the charge for a separate Space Force, contending that the Air Force isn’t capable of combating the threat from other nations that have ramped up their efforts in space. They fear new foreign technology could shoot down GPS or spy satellites, leaving the military unable to see incoming missiles.
“We could be deaf, dumb and blind within seconds,” Cooper said in February at a space forum at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, according to The New York Times. “Seldom has a great nation been so vulnerable.”
A new military branch would cost money, of course, and create a whole new entity that requires administrative staff and support.
Small force, big job
Stewart, the Utah congressman who wants to know more about the Space Force before backing the idea, says he sees pluses and minuses with a new military branch.
For one, it would be far smaller than the other branches. The Army has 487,000 active duty soldiers, the Navy has 323,000 among its ranks, the Air Force about 307,000 and the Marine Corps 183,000, according to the Pentagon. The Coast Guard has 56,000 members, according to the branch overseen by the Department of Homeland Security.
Stewart expects the Space Force, if approved, to include some 30,000 to 34,000.
“My worry is that they’d be overwhelmed by the other forces if it were so much smaller and maybe not as important a seat at the table,” the congressman said.
On the other hand, consolidating space operations under one roof could help streamline its efforts rather than coordinating over various military branches, each with its own areas of expertise.
“There are some advantages to it," Stewart said. “One is a more clear command and responsibility: a force that has a specific mission and can be held responsible for the success and failure.”
Though Trump hopes to build his Space Force in the near future, the opposition may eventually hamper any quick resolution.
“It is a virtual certainty that it will be a huge undertaking that will consume a lot of time, effort, thinking,” former Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James said recently, according to CNBC.
James, who served under President Barack Obama, said the new force could “zap” military resources that might be better applied elsewhere. And she said top military leaders are not on board but stuck in an unenviable spot.
“None of them [is] in favor of a Space Force, but they are stuck," she said. “The president has said it, and it will be interesting to see how they now deal with it.”