By Vera Bergengruen
McClatchy Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON — When the United States has to fight a war in space, who will be in charge?
A debate 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 by January 2019 — the United States Space Corps — to address threats in space.
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 space, 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.”
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 Air Force was created in 1947.
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, 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 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 said. “The Chinese literally have a space force today, and yet the Air Force would continue to force space to compete with F-35s.”
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 Secretary. Heather Wilson.
The plan would only create another layer of government within the Defense Department, Air Force leaders say. Under the proposal, the Space Corps chief would be 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 said last month, pointing out that every mission performed by the U.S. military is dependent on space technology.
Some lawmakers agreed with the skepticism of the urgency to build a space branch in a short time. Rep. Michael Turner, R-Ohio, proposed an amendment to analyze the need for a 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 be adopted this year.
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.
The Space Corps is not a new idea. Donald Rumsfeld, who was defense secretary in the George W. Bush administration, proposed creating such a military service branch, equal to the Army and the Air Force, in 2001, but it was postponed indefinitely after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
The renewed Space Corps debate comes as Pentagon leaders have recently increased calls to treat a space war as seriously as a naval fight or land combat.
Intelligence agencies have said 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 Dan Coats, the director of national intelligence.
“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.
©2017 McClatchy Washington Bureau