(Image: The U.S. Air Force's X-37B unmanned spaceplane that orbits for hundreds of days at a time on classified missions, 2014.)
The House of Representatives passed the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) yesterday, including legislation that would require the Air Force to create a new branch of the military called the 'Space Corps' by the beginning of 2019. The Space Corps would replace the Air Force's current space departments and receive more funding as well as its own command.
It was a major step for those in favor of creating a sixth military branch, but the Space Corps is still far from reality. The Senate Armed Services Committee's current markup of the NDAA, a $696 billion measure, does not include the Space Corps, but rather creates a new officer to oversee space defense in the Pentagon, according to a summary of the bill acquired by Space News.
The creation of a Space Corps is also opposed by Air Force leadership and Secretary of Defense James Mattis along with the Trump administration. The White House issued a statement about the NDAA this past week that said space defense needed to be addressed, "the creation of a separate Space Corps, however, is premature at this time."
The Senate's current version of the NDAA seems to agree. Rather than creating an entirely new military branch, the Senate bill would create a new Chief Information Warfare Officer (CIWO) in the Defense Department to oversee "cybersecurity and cyber warfare, space and space launch systems, electronic warfare, and the electromagnetic spectrum." The Senate bill would also require the head of Air Force Space Command to serve for six years, rather than two or four years.
Representatives in the House, however, remain adamant that a drastic shift in operations could be necessary. "I know that there are those in the Department of Defense who may not think it's the best idea in the world, but I'll just say, if you look back in history, it is incumbent upon Congress to make changes in the Pentagon that they cannot make for themselves," said House Armed Services Committee Chairman Mac Thornberry (R-Texas) after the House NDAA session. "We will absolutely continue to talk with each other, visit with the Senate, Pentagon, and the administration, but we will also keep pushing to help ensure we're prepared for the future."
The Senate is not commenting on the House version of the NDAA at this time. The two chambers of Congress will hold joint sessions to iron out the discrepancies in the two versions of the bill. Those sessions, however, will involve smaller groups of representatives and senators with the authority to merge the two bills. If the Space Corps is going to pass, one of the two representatives who created the legislation-Alabama Republican Rep. Mike Rogers or Tennessee Democrat Rep. Jim Cooper-will almost certainly need to be a part of the final NDAA negotiations.
The creation of a Space Corps by 2019 may be tenuous, but there will certainly big major changes to military space organization in the final NDAA. The Senate's proposal points out that space "decision-making is fragmented across more than 60 offices in DoD. Funding for space programs is also near 30-year lows, while the threats and our reliance on space are at their highest and growing." The White House and the Air Force also agree that space defense needs to be restructured and receive more funding, but they oppose a Space Corps due to concerns that a new branch would complicate the Defense Department.
There are still a number of forms that restructuring space defense, or milspace, could take. As Todd Harrison from the Center for Strategic and International Studies told Space News, "We are likely to see some sort of action in space reorganization in this year's NDAA, but the realm of possibilities is enormous."
The military is going to take a major step to increase the defense of assets in space, particularly satellites that make up ISR and communications networks, but a new branch of the military may yet be some time off.
Source: Space News
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