WASHINGTON — A day after U.S. President Donald Trump proposed the creation of a separate military ‘space force,’ top Air Force leaders who previously opposed such an idea downplayed the apparent disconnect.

Saying his National Security Strategy “recognizes that space is a war-fighting domain, just like the land, air and sea,” Trump said at a Marine Corps base in San Diego, California, on Tuesday that he’s considering “a space force” that would be the equivalent of the Air Force, Army and Navy.

“You know, I was saying it the other day — because we are doing a tremendous amount of work in space — I said: ‘Maybe we need a new force,’ ” Trump said. “We’ll call it ‘Space Force.’ And I was not really serious. 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 remarks put the Air Force in an awkward spot. The White House, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Air Force leaders lobbied against the idea last year when it was proposed in the 2018 National Defense Authorization Act that a Space Corps be carved out of the Air Force.

Ultimately the bill passed with language requiring the Pentagon to order an independent study on the issue, due by the end of this year.

Opponents argue the measure would create unneeded bureaucracy, while proponents argue the Air Force’s lack of focus on its space mission has allowed Russia and China to pose a threat to America’s vital satellites. Two lead proponents — House Armed Services Strategic Forces Subcommittee Chairman Mike Rogers, R-Ala., and ranking member Jim Cooper, D-Tenn. — have both vowed to continue to the fight.

Asked on Wednesday outside a House Defense Appropriations Subcommittee hearing whether there is a disconnect within the administration and whether the Air Force is taking Trump’s remarks seriously, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein said: “We’re taking it very seriously, and I’m looking forward to this conversation.

“I think the president stating openly that space is a war-fighting domain is exactly in line with what we’ve been thinking about, so this is really helpful to have a president and vice president really focused on space, like we are.”

At Wednesday’s hearing on the Air Force’s 2019 budget request, panel Chairwoman Rep. Kay Granger, R-Texas, reminded Goldfein and Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson of their opposition and asked them to explain.

“I want to know your understanding of the current policy is, how you interpret the president’s remarks,” Granger said, asking that they “please reiterate your reasons for opposing this idea.”

Wilson directed lawmakers toward the 2019 defense budget request and left the part about her opposition unanswered.

“As the president said yesterday, the new National Defense Strategy for space recognizes that space is a war-fighting domain,” Wilson said. “We appreciate the president and the vice president’s leadership on space. Nowhere is the president’s leadership more clear than the president’s budget.”

Later in the hearing, Wilson touted the service’s “bold move” for space: Its 2019 budget request includes an 18 percent increase for space across the five-year defense plan, versus the previous year’s request.

The Air Force plans to emphasize investments in situational awareness, command and control, and “the ability to create effects to protect our assets in orbit,” she said.

Goldfein said in the hearing that he’d been responsible for coordinating space assets for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, just as he did under then-Gen. Mattis, at U.S. Central Command years ago.

“As the president stated openly, its a joint war-fighting domain; that’s where we’ve been focused,” Goldfein told the panel. “So I’m really looking forward to the conversation.”

Joe Gould was the senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry. He had previously served as Congress reporter.

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