Trump administration officials trekked to a space-industry conference in Colorado Springs on Tuesday to deliver a thinly veiled message to Democrats in Congress: Fund the President’s Space Force or risk a $3 trillion hit to the economy.
But Democrats have been clear: The space force is expensive and dumb, and Congress won’t pay for it.
That hasn’t stopped the Trump administration from pushing for it.
“Space is fundamental to our modern way of life,” Patrick Shanahan, acting secretary of defense, said at the annual Space Symposium in Colorado Springs.
Shanahan, a former Boeing executive who is under investigation for allegedly favoring to his former employer for military contracts, described the many ways in which the U.S. economy relies on space: GPS, satellite imagery, phone, television, even the internet.
Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, speaking at the same conference, went so far as to put a price tag on all those satellites and the industry on the ground that builds, launches, and monitors them: $400 billion in 2019, a figure that he projected could rise to $3 trillion by 2040 as space-based manufacturing and moon-mining potentially get underway.
But access to all those riches depends on American control of space, Shanahan said. And control of space depends on the United States standing up a separate military branch for orbital operations: “We need a military organization to ensure the free navigation of the stars—a sixth military branch,” Shanahan clarified.
The Trump officials’ demand represents a rhetorical escalation of a political battle that began in February 2018, when Trump first proposed “space force.”
“We're doing a tremendous amount of work in space, and I said, ‘Maybe we need a new force. We’ll call it the space force,” Trump said at a campaign rally in San Diego. “I was not really serious, and then I said, ‘What a great idea. Maybe we'll have to do that.’”
Space force caught on fast with Trump's base. Alongside “build the wall,” “space force” became a popular chant at Trump's many rallies. The Trump campaign peddled hats and t-shirts with fantastical space-force logos, including one that was a clear rip-off of NASA's own logo.
American Media, Inc., the New York City-based publisher of The National Enquirer, slapped together a glossy, space-force magazine special that was chock full of errors, misrepresentations, and outright lies.
While many Americans laughed, most of Trump’s cabinet and many senior military officials and space-industry executives, led by Vice President Mike Pence in his capacity as the head of the U.S. Space Council, dutifully laid out plans for the new military branch.
It started small-ish. In February, Trump signed a directive calling for the branch's establishment first as a new command within the Air Force.
The new command, with two four-star generals and a new civilian undersecretary at the head, would be “a step toward a future separate military department for space,” an administration official told Defense News, a trade publication.
Never mind that space force, even in its inside-the-Air-Force interim form, is just a new bureaucracy. Never mind that senior military leaders—including James Mattis, Trump’s defense secretary until he resigned in January—have opposed adding more bureaucracy to the already top-heavy military.
Even Air Force general John Hyten, the head of U.S. Strategic Command and Trump's nominee to become the new vice chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, questioned the standalone space force. “I had some concerns,” Hyten in March told the House Armed Services Committee.
But the Trump administration is determined to turn the campaign slogan into an actual, sixth military branch.
There's a catch. Congress, not the White House, establishes new branches of the armed services. Even setting up a new command inside the Air Force requires Congress's approval.
And in November 2018, Democrats took control of the House of Representatives. Suddenly Trump couldn't count on Republican lawmakers to rubber-stamp the first new military branch since the Air Force in 1947 split from the Army.
Key Democrats in the House and Senate made it clear that Trump would not get his separate space force, perhaps not even in the interim form the administration proposed in February.
“We’re told that the bureaucracy that we would create will cost $2 billion over the next five years,” Sen. Dick Durbin, an Illinois Democrat and the ranking member of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense, said in March.
“But we ought to be asking ourselves, are we just dazzled by this notion of a space force?” Durbin asked. “Is this going to make us safer? Would $2 billion spent on new equipment, better equipment, more training for those who operate the equipment be a better investment in national defense than a space force?”
Rep. Adam Smith, a Washington State Democrat and chair of the House Armed Services Committee, in March called Trump's interim space-force proposal “highly problematic.”
Smith said he objected to the space force's cost and top-heavy command structure and the loose and easy-to-abuse spending rules the administration proposed in order to transfer as many as 16,000 people from existing military space organizations into the interim space force.
As long as Democrats control the House of Representatives, Trump is unlikely to get his standalone space force—and might not even get a new, temporary space command inside the Air Force.
The obstacles explain the administration's red-faced rhetoric in Colorado Springs. It's classic Trumpism. When you run into opposition, scream and yell about some terrible threat to the American people. Some terrible threat only Trump can defeat.
“President Trump cast a bold vision,” Shanahan said. “We need to establish space force to protect our future.”
Too bad for Trump that Democrats disagree.