WASHINGTON — The U.S. Congress is not creating a new military service devoted to space, but analysts and lawmakers say they have laid the groundwork for the ambitious, and controversial plan.

The 2018 National Defense Authorization Act that passed the Senate Nov. 16, not only left out House-passed language to build a new Space Corps within the Air Force, but expressly banned its creation.

Rather than maintain the status quo, however, lawmakers who favored a Space Corps over the go-slow approach favored by the White House and Pentagon officials won a victory in the bill’s aggressive overhaul of the Air Force’s organization for space.

“Some of the initial headlines said they killed Space Corps, but I think it’s more accurate to say they deferred it,” said Todd Harrison, a top defense budget analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and director of its Aerospace Security Project. His analysis is here.

“And of course, they slapped the Air Force over this. All these things the Air Force had been doing, that the Air Force had responsibility for, they took away,” Harrison added.

The bill axes A11, the service’s new three-star billet for deputy chief of staff for space operations. Instead, it gives more responsibility and authority to Air Force Space Command for space acquisitions, resource management, requirements, war fighting, and personnel development—viewed as a start for the potential creation of a Space Corps in the future.

Crucially, the bill requires the deputy defense secretary to have an independent organization—and not the Air Force—develop a road map to “establish a separate military department” for space, rather than a military service within the Department of the Air Force, and that it would encompass “national security space” rather than just Air Force space.

To Harrison, the language and tone of the summary accompanying the bill suggests a lack of confidence in the Air Force leadership.

Besides killing A11 — which the NDAA summary rips as “a hastily-developed half-measure instituted by the Air Force, which at best only added a box on the organizational chart” — and boosting Air Force Space Command, the bill kills the Defense Space Council and principal DoD space adviser (both headed by the secretary of the Air Force). It also turns the Operationally Responsive Space Office into the Space Rapid Capabilities Office, reporting directly to Air Force Space Command.

The key proponents of a Space Corps, House Strategic Forces Chairman Mike Rogers, R-Ala., and Ranking Member Jim Cooper, D-Tenn., trumpeted the bill in a joint statement Nov. 8 for taking “the first step in fundamentally changing and improving the national security space programs of the Department of Defense and the U.S. Air Force in particular.”

The idea is that America’s military has become evermore dependent on satellites for communication, intelligence and navigation, and that it must have a dedicated branch to best counter foes like Russia and China, already working to exploit that vulnerability.

Rogers had argued the Air Force resisted 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.

“After months of thorough oversight, it became clear that the Department of Defense, and the Air Force in particular, did not prioritize space capabilities even as threats increase, and were not structured in a way to ensure that we are able to deter, defend and if necessary fight and win in space,” Rogers and Cooper said in their joint statement.

The White House and its new team, including Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson, all dug in and pushed back as the NDAA wound its way through Congress. They argued a Space Corps would only add more bureaucracy.

Rogers initially outmaneuvered them, winning the public support of House Armed Services Committee Chair Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, and torpedoing an Space Corps-killing amendment in the House Rules Committee, but could not win over key senators like his counterpart, Sen. Deb Fischer, R-Neb.

Ultimately, the bill does indicate Congress is displeased with the Air Force. Harrison credited an “unforced error” by the Air Force for that.

“The pushback was too strong, and it seemed like the Air Force was not getting the message from Congress, that it wanted the Air Force to do something different,” Harrison said. “Secretary Wilson had the perfect opportunity to say, ‘I’m new, I’m going to be the referee here [between Rogers and the Air Force].’ But she didn’t.”

It’s not clear whether the Air Force and the armed services committees are precisely on the same page, even now.

Speaking at the Halifax International Security Forum in Canada this month, the chief of U.S. Strategic Command, Air Force Gen. John Hyten, framed the bill not as a rebuke, but hailed the NDAA’s changes as bulldozing bureaucracy. He said its assessment of the problem is “exactly right.”

“My biggest fear is actually not about the Russians or the Chinese,” Hyten said. “My biggest fear is that our country seems to have lost the ability to go fast, and our adversaries are going fast, and if we don’t fix that, we won’t stay ahead of them.”

Hyten was dismissive of the idea of Space Corps, however, referencing an aircraft from science fiction.

“I don’t think we need a Space Corps,” Hyten said. “I had a boss one time that told me that you don’t need a space corps until you’ve got X-Wing fighters. That’s about the timing I think you would need when you get the need for a Space Corps. It just adds more bureaucracy.”

To Hyten, the NDAA’s approach will not necessarily lead to a new Space Corps.

“The whole goal was to eliminate some of the bureaucracy that was keeping us from going fast and say, all right, Air Force, you have a big role with Air Force Space Command, you’re in charge,” Hyten said. “Now we need to figure out the Pentagon side of the house, and basically clean the floor of everything that was in the Pentagon and say, ‘Now figure out a way to go fast.’”

Valerie Insinna in Halifax, Canada, contributed to this report.

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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