President Donald Trump stuck his foot in his mouth again, this time while announcing a new space program. During a recent meeting with the National Space Council, the president directed the Department of Defense and the Pentagon to establish a ‘Space Force’ as the sixth branch of the military, The Verge reports. That announcement came as a surprise, even to the people who would implement the project — all before the language he used raised eyebrows.
“The whole point of today’s meeting was not about this at all, it was about the space traffic management policy decision,” Brian Weeden told The Verge. The director of program planning for the Secure World Foundation focuses on space policy. “To actually create a space force, Congress would have to pass some legislation to do so — both to create it and to actually fund it,” he added.
The Space Force idea isn’t a new idea
Trump has raised the idea of a Space Force before. It first came up in March 2018, according to Vox. At the time, he said the new force would “[function] like the Army and the Navy, but for space, because we’re spending a lot of money on space.”
A congressional push last year also tried to formally create the new service, but Congress rejected it. In this fiscal year’s defense budget bill, both the House and the Senate decided against a new space force. Instead, space defense remained within the purview of the Air Force.
Right now, the Air Force controls national security in space under the Air Force Space Command. Its responsibilities include supervising launches and controlling DoD satellites. That includes ones involved in missile early warnings, communication, and navigation.
The president can’t create a new military branch
Congress — not the president — must authorize a new military service. That resulted in the creation of the Air Force in 1947. The Constitution also states that only Congress holds the authority “to raise and support armies.”
While Trump can sign an executive order to demand its creation, it can’t happen without Congress. “[T]he near-term practical effect of all this is that the president can direct DoD to come up with a plan and start preparing to create a space force, but he still needs Congress to authorize it,” defense expert Todd Harrison tweeted. And a lot of people actually resist the idea.
The proposal drew mixed reviews
Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis came out against the Space Force when Trump first raised the idea. “I oppose the creation of a new military service and additional organizational layers at a time when we are focused on reducing overhead and integrating joint warfighting efforts,” he wrote.
The Air Force also adamantly opposes it. “The Pentagon is complicated enough,” Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson told reporters. “This will make it more complex, add more boxes to the organization chart.”
However, CNN reports that the DoD does officially back the idea. One official said, “Space is a warfighting domain … It is vital that our military maintains its dominance and competitive advantage in that domain. The Joint Staff will work closely with the Office of the Secretary of Defense, other [Defense Department] stakeholders and the Congress to implement the President’s guidance.” That implementation does not come without its complications.
Creating new military branches is complicated
“There’s a lot of complexity in making this change since it involves creating a whole new Pentagon bureaucracy from scratch,” Weeden told The Verge. “Everything as mundane as new uniforms all the way through to new doctrine, and probably tens of thousands of new people … It would be a really big change, and it’s not something to be taken lightly.”
Sean O’Keefe, a former NASA head and Navy secretary, told Vox creating a brand new branch of the military makes little sense. “This is a solution in search of a problem,” he said. Creating a space force just adds another layer of bureaucracy to the already-massive Pentagon. And the way Trump announced it comes with its own issues.
Trump’s proposal used some problematic terms
“We must have American dominance in space,” Trump announced. “I’m hereby directing the Department of Defense and Pentagon to immediately begin the process necessary to establish the Space Force as the sixth branch of the armed forces … We are going to have the Air Force and we are going to have the Space Force: Separate but equal. It is going to be something so important.”
Yes, Trump said “separate but equal.” You probably know the term from Plessy v. Ferguson. The 1896 Supreme Court decision upheld racial segregation in public facilities. While he likely didn’t intend the racially-charged reference, it demonstrates his characteristic lack of foresight.
If the president wanted to generate support for the Space Force, he could have given those responsible for it a heads up. Or at least used less divisive language, at a time when the country already rests on a racial knife edge.
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