Incoming Utah lawmaker running bill to add Space Force to state code

(Staff Sgt. Kayla White | U.S. Air Force via AP) In this file photo released by the U.S. Air Force, Capt. Ryan Vickers stands for a photo to display his new service tapes after taking his oath of office to transfer from the U.S. Air Force to the U.S. Space Force at Al-Udeid Air Base, Qatar, Tuesday, Sept. 1, 2020. Space Force, the first new U.S. military service since the creation of the Air Force in 1947, now has some 20 members stationed at Qatar's Al-Udeid Air Base in its first foreign deployment.

In his first act as a newly-elected state representative, Jefferson Burton, the former Utah National Guard adjutant general, is working to add President Donald Trump’s Space Force as a branch of the armed forces equal to the U.S. Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines and Coast Guard in the state’s code.

The bill, which received a favorable recommendation from the Veterans and Military Affairs Commission on Tuesday, is a relatively simple one in that it seeks to mirror similar changes in federal code. But the proposal also speaks to the federal government’s vision for protecting the expanse beyond the Earth’s atmosphere — and for Burton’s hope to get Utahns in on the action.

“Reserve elements from every state are discussing ways to get involved in the Space Force” and Utah is no exception, Burton, a Republican representative-elect from Utah County, said in an interview with The Salt Lake Tribune on Wednesday.

Becoming one of the first states to add the Space Force to its code could signal early support for the endeavor as it gets off the ground and could help Utah’s residents get involved, he said.

“It’s kind of like the resource food fight,” Burton added. “Everyone wants to get involved in it because they see growth and opportunity there.”

Trump first floated the idea of creating a force to handle military operations in space as a way to ensure American dominance in the arena back in 2018.

“We don’t want China and Russia and other countries leading us,” Trump said at a White House event with the National Space Council that year. “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.”

The force was officially established last December, with plans to stand it up within an 18-month time frame.

While the name has evoked visions on Twitter and on late night comedy shows of troops in space suits protecting the Earth in zero-gravity conditions, most of the work of the Space Force is intended to be done on the ground. And its primary aim will be to protect satellites used for navigation and communications.

“Previously, space has been just kind of open terrain,” Burton said. “If you can afford to launch a satellite as a nation, you do it. The reality is there’s so many satellites ... that it’s getting congested up there, No. 1, and No. 2, there’s a lot of anti-satellite technology that could threaten our satellites.”

Disruption of that technology, he said, could be disastrous for the nation’s economy.

(Rick Egan | Tribune file photo) Then-Adjutant General of the Utah National Guard Jefferson Burton in August 2015.

On its website, the Space Force describes itself as a “military service that organizes, trains, and equips space forces in order to protect U.S. and allied interests in space and to provide space capabilities to the joint force.” The force’s responsibilities will include “developing military space professionals, acquiring military space systems, maturing the military doctrine for space power, and organizing space forces to present to our Combatant Commands.”

The new armed forces branch also makes a case on its website for the importance of space to the nation’s “security and prosperity.”

“Space affects almost every part of our daily lives and is fundamental to our economic system,” the website states. Satellites power not only GPS technology but also “allow us to surf the web and call our friends, enable first responders to communicate with each other in times of crisis, time-stamp transactions in the world financial market, and even allow us to use credit cards at gas pumps.”

While Space Force is still getting off the ground, the Pentagon released a few details about the effort last year. The new service is expected to have about 15,000 personnel, including an unspecified number of civilians but an initial force of about 200 people and a first-year budget of $40 million, according to The Associated Press.

The Army, the nation’s largest military service, has by contrast about 480,000 active-duty soldiers and a $181 billion budget.

Burton, who will fill the House District 66 seat left vacant by Rep. Mike McKell’s election to the state Senate, noted that he has other bills coming out ahead of next month’s general legislative session. But he said he decided to run the Space Force legislation “because I have an affinity for the military and love for the people that serve there.”

“This is something that I was working on before I left uniform as this thing started to evolve more than a year ago,” he said. “It just made sense that this should be added to our statutory language and so I was willing to take that on.”

Burton joined the military as a soldier in 1982 and served in various capacities throughout his career, which included a stint at the Reserve Office Training Corps at Brigham Young University and in the Military Police Corps. In 2007, he was named assistant commander of the Utah Army National Guard, overseeing more than 5,500 soldiers. Five years later, he was promoted to commander of the Utah Air and Army National Guard before retiring from that position in November 2019.

He also recently played a role in the state’s coronavirus response when he was appointed to coordinate day-to-day operations of the Department of Health in the early days of the pandemic.