What Does Trump Mean By 'Space Force'?

The president has proposed the creation of a new military branch that his Defense Department actually opposes.

Trump stands at a podium and points while in front of an fighter jet.
Alex Gallardo / AP

With a fighter jet positioned behind him, President Trump suggested on Tuesday that the United States create another military branch.

“Space is a war-fighting domain just like the land, air, and sea,” Trump said, addressing an audience of Marines at the Miramar Marine Corps Air Station in San Diego, California. “We may even have a space force—develop another one—space force. We have the Air Force, we’ll have the space force. We have the Army, the Navy.”

The president said the idea came to him recently. “I was saying it the other day—’cause we’re doing a tremendous amount of work in space—I said, maybe we need a new force. We’ll call it the space force,” he said. “And I was not really serious. And then I said, what a great idea. Maybe we’ll have to do that. That could happen. That could be the big, breaking story.”

The idea of a space corps was already a news story—last year. In July, the House of Representatives passed legislation that would direct the Defense Department to create a “space corps” as a new military service, housed within the Air Force. But the Pentagon—Trump’s Pentagon—opposed it.

“The Pentagon is complicated enough,” Heather Wilson, the Air Force secretary, told reporters last June after the Senate brought her in to discuss the idea. “This will make it more complex, add more boxes to the organization chart, and cost more money. If I had more money, I would put it into lethality, not bureaucracy.”

That stance, made firmly by a Trump appointee, is why Trump’s remarks on Tuesday were so surprising. The president was, in his usual way, speaking in an off-the-cuff manner as he described a potential new military branch. And, as has happened before, he ended up mangling his own administration’s policies in the process.

As my colleague Russell Berman reported last summer, the concept of a military force dedicated to outer space is not new. In 2000, a military-reform commission led by Donald Rumsfeld suggested the creation of such a force, but the idea fell by the wayside after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq that followed. Last year, the House Armed Services Committee approved a measure to create a space corps brought forward by Mike Rogers, a Republican from Alabama, and Jim Cooper, a Democrat from Tennessee.

The proposed space corps would absorb the duties of the U.S. Air Force Space Command, a unit inside the Air Force that supports most of the country’s military operations in space and employs about 36,000 people across more than 130 sites around the world. The division would collect space professionals throughout the government into one place. “The military has not done a good enough job looking after space with all its other distracting priorities,” Cooper told Berman last year. “It’s just not getting the attention it deserves.”

The measure made it into the House’s version of an annual defense bill, but the Senate’s version banned it. The Pentagon stood by in its opposition, which was carried over from the Obama administration. Congress passed their final bill in November with no mention of the space corps. Its most fervent supporters vowed momentum would return, but the idea has mostly fallen out of consideration again.

Until, of course, Trump brought it up on Tuesday. The president’s view of space as a “war-fighting domain” is in line with what multiple Air Force officials have said since he took office. But it’s not clear what—if anything—Trump’s accidental pivot means for future policy. The Pentagon told me they wouldn’t release an official statement Tuesday night and suggested calling again in the morning. The White House did not respond to a request for clarification of Trump’s comments. Rogers and Cooper, meanwhile, are pleased.

“I am so proud of President Trump’s support of this important and historic initiative to create an independent space force,” Rogers said in a statement to The Atlantic. “I look forward to working with the Trump administration to make this a reality in the near future.”

In a separate statement, Cooper said, “while I have not seen anything beyond President Trump’s comments today, his remarks seem encouraging.”

Trump’s appearance in California marks the second time in less than a week that the president’s statements about the nation’s space ambitions contradict actual policy. During a Cabinet meeting at the White House on Thursday, Trump decided to praise the work of SpaceX, Elon Musk’s company, and ended up undermining a very expensive rocket program at NASA. Trump made supporters of the NASA program wince when he seemed to suggest that he’d rather have commercial companies like SpaceX paying for rocket launches than the government.

War in space, despite what the tone of some leaders may suggest, is not imminent. But peace, as in many places on Earth, is tenuous. While the Outer Space Treaty of 1967 bans the placement of weapons of mass destruction in Earth’s orbit, there’s no comprehensive treaty on the use of space weapons, nor any international agreement on what, exactly, a space weapon would be. If fighting breaks out, it would unfold in the mess of hundreds of communications, navigation, weather, and reconnaissance satellites on which society depends in countless ways. Infrastructure could crumble without a single shot fired.

It’s been more than 70 years since the United States established its last new military branch, the Air Force. The president may be keen on establishing another while he’s in office, but the country probably will stick with the ones it has.