WASHINGTON — There's one less hurdle for a new U.S. military branch focused on space after an amendment meant to derail it failed Wednesday to get approval from the House Rules Committee for a public floor debate.

The outcome was a loss for the White House, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and other opponents who claim a new "Space Corps" equals more bureaucracy, but it was a win for lawmakers who warn the Air Force must be reorganized to catch up with China and Russia's militarization of space. Space has become critical for the U.S. military with satellites used for navigation, protected communications, missile warning, surveillance and intelligence collection.

Plans for the new Space Corps were spearheaded by House Strategic Forces Subcommittee Chairman Mike Rogers, R-Ala., and ranking member Rep. Jim Cooper, D-Tenn., with the support of House Armed Services Committee Chairman Mac Thornberry, R-Texas. The HASC voted 60-1 last month to approve the 2018 National Defense Authorization Act, which contains the Space Corps legislative language.

House Tactical Air and Land Forces Subcommittee Chairman Mike Turner, R-Ohio, had waged a public push and lobbying effort to replace the Space Corps language with orders for a study on whether a new branch is necessary. Mattis and Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson had each written letters backing him, and the White House listed it among two dozen NDAA provisions it opposes.

Congressional aides said late Wednesday the House Rules Committee, led by Rep. Pete Sessions, R-Texas, did not deem the amendment in order, and it did not receive an individual up-or-down vote. After Turner, Rogers and Cooper each pleaded their cases in a public hearing, the decision appears to have been made quietly.

The HASC-passed NDAA would direct the Defense Department to establish a Space Corps by Jan. 1, 2019. The Space Corps would fall under the Department of the Air Force but operate as an independent service, similar to the Marine Corps' relationship to the Department of the Navy. 

The corps would be responsible for space acquisition programs and led by its own chief of staff, however other services would still be permitted to procure their own user terminals. It would also be responsible for organizing, training and equipping space forces.
 
Turner and others had argued such sweeping upheaval to the military's space enterprise could be a mistake and that change should be approached more slowly and methodically. He told reporters early Wednesday he hoped a July 11 letter from Mattis voicing support for the amendment would help.

"The Armed Services Committee has not held any hearings on information about the Space Corps. There are no estimates of cost. The administration, the Department of Defense are opposed," Turner said. "While they work for increased readiness and refocus on modernization, restructuring the bureaucracy to the great extent of creating another service branch is extreme."

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Mattis, in his letter, unequivocally stated his opposition to the Space Corps, saying its formation would add overhead and could further grow the budget.

"At a time when we are trying to integrate the Department's joint warfighting functions, I do not wish to add a separate service that would likely present a narrower and even parochial approach to space operations vice an integrated one we're constructing under our current approach," Mattis wrote.

Rogers and Cooper testified together before the House Rules Committee on Wednesday to emphasize their proposal's bipartisan support and the dire need to prioritize space as its own domain.

Rogers argued the path ahead would actually be fairly deliberative. The Air Force would have six months after the bill's passage to create its own plan, teeing up further congressional action to move forward or reverse as necessary. Even sooner, there would be a series of classified and open hearings on the next steps, he said.

"We encourage you to come, particularly to the classified hearings to see our capabilities and our adversaries' — it is shocking what's happened," Rogers told the House Rules Committee. "Both China and Russia have already reorganized space."


Rogers argued the Air Force is resisting the move in part because its space accounts are a "money pot," which service leaders have raided for years to pay for air-domain needs. 

"If we create a separate corps, the money goes to a separate corps, and that's why the fighter pilots [who are] general officers are opposed to it," Rogers said. 

Although Turner acknowledged the military has faced difficulties in executing space programs, he argued that House lawmakers have not adequately laid out the organization and functions of the Space Corps, or even how much forming it would cost. 

Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein has also cautioned against forming a Space Corps. In May, he told lawmakers that the Air Force needs to focus on integrating the space enterprise with other war-fighting functions and domains. Creating a stovepiped space organization outside that of the major services could take the military further from that goal.

"Anything that separates space and makes it unique and different, relative to all of the war-fighting missions that we perform that are reliant on space, I don't think believe that will move us in the right direction at this time," Goldfein said.

Email:  jgould@defensenews.com                     

Twitter:  @reporterjoe