This summer, Trump approved a Congress-passed defense-policy bill for fiscal year 2019 that directed the secretary of defense’s office to “develop a space war-fighting policy.” Defense Department leadership instructed staff to compile a budget proposal specifically for a Space Force for the next round of appropriations, which will cover fiscal year 2020, but it’s unclear how successful the effort will be in a Democratic-controlled House.
But even before the midterm elections, the Space Force proposal had tepid support among lawmakers, including Republicans. Mac Thornberry of Texas, the current chair of the House Armed Services Committee, refused to provide a definite stance, saying he preferred to wait for more precise details from the Pentagon. The Senate side took a similar wait-and-see approach. Senator Joni Ernst of Iowa, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said she was “open to a debate” about the Space Force, and wasn’t sure whether the branch should be a “separate stand-alone force or if it can be better maximized as part of the existing Air Force.”
Read: How exactly do you establish a Space Force?
Congressional lawmakers had heard a similar idea before Trump made his case, when a pair of congressmen in the House proposed the creation of a “space corps” in the summer of 2017. The new service, they said, would be housed within the Air Force and oversee all space-related military operations. The Air Force hated the idea, saying that such a stand-alone division would only add more bureaucracy to an agency already crisscrossed with red tape. Congressional leaders listened to defense officials and rejected the legislation.
Then came Trump, at a Marine Corps base in California, enthusiastically ad-libbing his desire for a sixth military branch in the United States. “Space is a war-fighting domain just like the land, air, and sea,” he said in March. “We may even have a Space Force—develop another one—Space Force. We have the Air Force, we’ll have the Space Force.” The proposed force would assume the responsibility for military space operations, which are now mostly run by the U.S. Air Force Space Command, a unit inside the Air Force.
Suddenly, the defense officials who had so vehemently opposed the space corps went silent. Heather Wilson, the Trump-nominated Air Force secretary who had criticized the House proposal, now found herself forced to support the president’s idea.
The proposal quickly became a partisan issue. A poll of 1,500 Americans in August showed that 69 percent of Democrats opposed the Space Force concept, while 68 percent of Republicans supported it.
As defense officials wrung their hands over how to handle a presidential directive they didn’t want, the Trump reelection campaign saw the Space Force as an opportunity to excite the president’s base. In August, the campaign sent an email to supporters chock-full of colorful logos for the Space Force, inviting them to vote on their favorite. Once they picked, they were brought to a page seeking donations for Trump’s reelection. Campaign staffers had hoped to sell the glamour of the Space Force, but beyond the bubbly logos, there was little to showcase. The Space Force didn’t exist, and even if it did, it would amount to a bureaucratic reshuffling.