For the past several months, Donald Trump’s administration has explored the creation of a new military branch to protect national interests in outer space. Perhaps no one is as excited about this effort as President Trump, who came up with the idea.
But the outcome of the midterm elections has derailed their efforts. The Trump administration cannot establish the Space Force on its own. It needs Congress. It needs individual lawmakers to support the proposal, and then translate that support into legislation that provides funding and empowers government officials. And, in an ideal world, those lawmakers would be in the majority.
With the House of Representatives flipped and Congress split, the Trump administration’s Space Force will probably never get off the ground. The House Armed Services Committee, which recently directed the Pentagon to explore the potential organization of the Space Force, will now be led by Democrats, and the lawmaker poised to become chair doesn’t support it.
“I am opposed to President Trump’s proposal for a Space Force,” Adam Smith, a representative from Washington State, said in a statement Wednesday. “I am concerned that his proposal would create additional costly military bureaucracy at a time when we have limited resources for defense and critical domestic priorities, and I do not believe it is the best way to advance U.S. national security.”
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.”
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.
To some, the Space Force appeared to be another of the president’s substance-free schemes. My colleague David Graham compared it to Trump University, the now-defunct venture that presented itself as a prestigious academy for real estate but actually scammed students out of millions of dollars. “Trump is selling the public one idea—a glitzy, pathbreaking new wing of government—and giving it instead a potentially kludgy reorganization of existing government functions,” Graham wrote.
Still, the hype managed to prompt a significant amount of government work, from the Department of Defense to the White House. Historians were called up to remind officials how, exactly, the United States established an armed service in 1947. Air Force officials were instructed to estimate how much the endeavor would cost and how many employees it would require. The Pentagon enlisted an outside research organization to study how such a branch would be set up. That report is expected to reach Congress at the end of the year.
The Space Force still has some ardent supporters in Congress, particularly the House representatives who proposed the space corps last year: Jim Cooper, a Democrat from Tennessee, and Mike Rogers, a Republican from Alabama. Rogers’s office did not respond to a request for comment on the aftermath of the midterm election. Cooper urged the importance of protecting U.S. assets in space. “With one attack against our satellites, we could be deaf, dumb, and blind within seconds,” Cooper wrote in a statement Thursday. “We must work together on these issues as space is one of our highest national security priorities.”
The White House says it will stick by the Space Force even if the House opposes it.
“The administration is working closely with House and Senate leaders on both sides of the aisle to create a legislative and budgetary path forward to standing up this new branch of the armed forces,” Alyssa Farah, a press secretary for Pence, said Wednesday. “We look forward to continuing that work and making the United States Space Force a reality.”