WASHINGTON — Rep. Mike Rogers, the House Strategic Forces Subcommittee chairman and Congress’ chief advocate for a new branch of the military focused on space, issued a dire warning to fellow lawmakers. The United States faces very real threats from Russia and China, he said, and “war-fighting has become absolutely dependent on space.”
Satellites make up the American military’s nervous system, providing communications, intelligence, navigation. Its adversaries have wisely begun developing anti-satellite capabilities, like rockets, kamikaze satellites and directed energy weapons to take them out — which would cripple the U.S. in a war.
Proponents of a space force say only a new service, removed from the Air Force’s organizational and management structure, would have the leeway to shore up America’s eroding advantage in space. And the proposal sparked headlines that made the whole thing seem like it was all but accomplished.
But several key lawmakers on the Senate Armed Services Committee would at best need serious convincing — a bad sign for the proposal becoming reality. Ultimately, lawmakers in the two chambers must reconcile their versions of the annual defense policy bill known as the National Defense Authorization Act.
Tellingly, Rogers’ counterpart in the Senate — Sen. Deb Fischer, R-Neb. — said she was “not sold on the idea,” even after a visit with Rogers. Florida Democrat Sen. Bill Nelson a former astronaut, was dismissive: “It’s not going anywhere.”
Proposed by Rogers, R-Ala., and Rep. Jim Cooper, D-Tenn., the idea made headlines when it was voted into the sweeping 2018 NDAA by the House Armed Services Committee. It was part of the bill when it passed the House on July 13 despite efforts to derail it.
The White House, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson, “Space Corps” equals more bureaucracy. In a letter to Rep. Mike Turner, an Ohio Republican leading the congressional opposition, said he was against the “additional organizational and administrative tail.”
“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,” Mattis wrote.
Rogers has 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.
But Rep. Mike Turner, chairman of the Tactical Air and Land Forces Subcommittee, has 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.
“While they work for increased readiness and refocus on modernization, restructuring the bureaucracy to the great extent of creating another service branch is extreme,” said Turner, R-Ohio.
Peter Singer, a senior fellow at non-partisan think tank New America and the author of “Ghost Fleet: A Novel of the Next World War,” said space is a very important domain, and “The opening battles of a World War III would arguably be silent, focusing on cyber and space.”
Yet Singer believes the solution is not organizational but in the acquisition of enough cheap, redundant micro-satellites that an adversary cannot hope to take out U.S. capabilities. “What makes us vulnerable is expensive launch platforms and expensive satellites, so that we cannot have enough of them,” he said.
The SASC’s NDAA addresses this question in its own way, by establishing the position of chief information warfare officer who oversees military cyber and space policies. The Senate bill would also require the chief of Air Force Space Command see a six-year term.
After the Senate passes that NDAA, the two chambers will have to appoint members to negotiate, or conference, a version acceptable to both chambers.
On July 17, Fischer signaled she was inclined to listen to Mattis, who was firm in his opposition. The idea of a new command of hundreds, and the resources hat would take, put Fischer off.
“I don’t know where it’s going to in conference, but my inclination was not to be supportive, and hearing Secretary Mattis’ comments just reinforced that,” Fischer said.
Fischer said she was satisfied that members have, through briefings, become increasingly aware of the challenges the U.S. faces in space. “We face some challenges and I believe we’re on track to meet those challenges,” she said.
Several influential members of the SASC said they were still keeping an open mind on the idea of a Space Corps, including Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and Airland Subcommittee ranking member Angus King, a Maine Independent who caucuses with Democrats.
Still, a key voice on Air Force issues in Congress, Airland Subcommittee chair, Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., brushed the idea of a Space Corps aside.
“Sounds like a solution in search of a problem,” he said.
Joe Gould is the senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry. He served previously as Congress reporter.