Space war is coming - and Congress wants to create a U.S. ‘Space Corps’ to fight it

A United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket carrying NASA's Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) Curiosity rover lifts off from Launch Complex 41at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Cape Canaveral, Fla., Saturday, Nov. 26, 2011. The rocket will deliver a science laboratory to Mars to study potential habitable environments on the planet.
A United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket carrying NASA's Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) Curiosity rover lifts off from Launch Complex 41at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Cape Canaveral, Fla., Saturday, Nov. 26, 2011. The rocket will deliver a science laboratory to Mars to study potential habitable environments on the planet. AP

When the United States has to fight a war in outer space, who will be in charge?

A debate erupting on Capitol Hill is pitting Congress and the U.S. Air Force against each other over a plan that would create a new military branch — the United States Space Corps — to address threats in space by January 2019.

The Air Force, which currently oversees the Space Command wing, is vehemently opposed to a dedicated space service, saying that would only complicate the defense bureaucracy.

But members of Congress say the Air Force isn’t moving fast enough to combat what they see as the looming threat in the cosmos — especially as intelligence agencies warn that Russia and China are developing weapons to take on U.S. space assets. The proposal, which is set for a full House vote this week, won bipartisan support in a House committee last month.

“We are convinced that the Department of Defense is unable to take the measures necessary to address these challenges effectively and decisively, or even recognize the nature and scale of its problems,” Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Ala., and Rep. Jim Cooper, D-Tenn., said in a joint statement before the committee vote. “Thus, Congress has to step in.”

If I had more money, I would put it into lethality not bureaucracy.

U.S. Air Force Sec. Heather Wilson

The measure passed the House Armed Services Committee, 60-1, as part of the annual defense policy bill last month. Under the plan, the Space Corps would operate as an independent branch under the Air Force, similar to the relationship between the U.S. Navy and the Marine Corps. It would be the first new military service branch since the creation of the Air Force in 1947.

Space war pits Congress against the Air Force

Rogers and other lawmakers supporting the creation of a Space Corps accuse the Air Force of not moving quickly enough to prioritize space programs. A military branch to fight space aggression should not be considered a natural extension of terrestrial air power, they add. And failing to create the new branch will erode U.S. strategic advantage in the area, they say.

“When I see arguments that we are actually going to set back efforts to respond to adversary space threats, well, as we say in Alabama, I’m pissed,” Rogers, the subcommittee’s chairman, said last month. He said he had been “shocked by the response by the Air Force leadership” to his efforts.

“Did they miss where the Chinese and the Russians have already reorganized their space operations?” he asked. “The Chinese literally have a space force today, and yet the Air Force would continue to force space to compete with F-35s.”

The Pentagon always resists change. It resisted the creation of the Air Force itself – the great irony here.

Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Ala., chairman of the subcommittee in strategic forces

The Air Force has hit back at the suggestion that it isn’t devoting enough attention to space threats, pointing to a proposed 20 percent increase in space funding in this year’s budget.

"If I had more money, I would put it into lethality, not bureaucracy," said Air Force Sec. Heather Wilson.

The plan would only serve to create another layer of government within the Defense Department, Air Force leaders say. Under the proposal, the new Space Corps chief would have a seat at the table as a member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

"The Pentagon is complicated enough,” Wilson said. “This will make it more complex, add more boxes to the organization chart and cost more money.”

Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein said that splintering the military into another branch would be “moving us in the wrong direction.”

“Now’s not the time to...segregate and separate. Now’s the time to further integrate,” he told reporters last month, pointing out that every mission performed by the U.S. military is dependent on space technology.

Some lawmakers agreed with the skepticism about the urgency to build a space branch in a short time frame. Rep. Michael Turner, R-Ohio, proposed an amendment to analyze the need for the Space Corps before creating it, but it was withdrawn.

Even if the House approves the Space Corps addition this week, the Senate version of the annual defense policy bill does not include such a plan, meaning it could be a long shot for it to become reality this year.

The U.S. military is already fighting war in space

Space Corps or no Space Corps, impatient lawmakers and the Air Force do agree on one thing – war beyond the planet is coming.

“We must expect that war, of any kind, will extend into space in any future conflict, and we have to change the way we think and prepare for that,” Wilson told a Senate panel last month.

Some say it’s already here.

“People are always saying ‘what if war extends into space?’ — I’d argue it already does,” said Todd Harrison, a space security expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “We are already heavily dependent on our space capabilities today.”

The Pentagon relies on space programs for everything from communications, missile warnings, surveillance and intelligence all the way down to basic GPS location.

“This is all so critical to how the military operates that we would be severely hamstrung if it was interfered with, which makes it an attractive target,” Harrison said. “Even ragtag insurgents have the ability to limit our use of space assets.”

While popular ideas of “space war” may bring to mind blowing up rockets outside the earth’s orbit, in reality just degrading or limiting the use of U.S. space assets and communications is technically “war fighting in space,” he said, citing cases where insurgents in Iraq and Syria have jammed U.S. satellite communications.

The Space Corps is not a new idea. Former Pentagon chief Donald Rumsfeld proposed creating such a military service branch, equal to the Army and the Air Force, in 2001, but it was postponed indefinitely after the 9/11 attacks.

Today’s version of the proposal may rely on timing. The Air Force is saying it’s not time to make the transition, while Congress says the military branch will never make the jump unless it’s forced to, defense analysts say.

“This big step to stand up a Space Corps by 2019 – that’s pretty aggressive,” Harrison said. “But I don’t think the Air Force is helping itself in the way they’re responding, just saying ‘Don’t worry, we’ve got this.’”

Russia and China are catching up

The renewed Space Corps debate comes as Pentagon leaders have recently ramped up their calls to treat a space war as seriously as a naval fight or land combat.

Intelligence agencies have warned that Russia and China are developing weapons capable of attacking U.S. satellites and other space-based military assets in orbit. While their efforts are most likely to focus on jamming U.S. military satellite communications, some weapons could physically destroy American space assets, according to a recent assessment by director of national intelligence Dan Coats.

“We assess that Russia and China perceive a need to offset any U.S. military advantage [in] space systems and are increasingly considering attacks against satellite systems as part of their future warfare doctrine,” he said in a report to the Senate Intelligence Committee in May.

With the number of private and scientific space operations also rapidly accelerating, a Space Corps could be taking on a lot more responsibilites than those outlined in the bill, industry experts say.

One of the main questions will be whether the new Space Corps would also take on a regulatory role, the way the defense department and U.S. government did with aviation, said Antonio Busalacchi, president of the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research, who spent two decades at NASA.

“Will this new entity build a regulatory framework – who flies when, what are the zones, how do we keep everyone safe?” he asked. “What about the environmental intersection when it comes to space weather forecasting for the military? So it’s clear why there is a concern about adding another layer to the bureaucracy.”

President Donald Trump signed an executive order and named Vice President Mike Pence to lead the relaunched National Space Council on June 30, 2017. Trump said his administration is prepared to "lead again like we never led before."

Vera Bergengruen: 202-383-6036, @verambergen