In mid-June, President Donald Trump gave one of his generals a new assignment.
“I’m hereby directing the Department of Defense and Pentagon to immediately begin the process necessary to establish a space force as the sixth branch of the Armed Forces,” the president declared, during a speech at a meeting of the National Space Council at the White House. “We are going to have the Air Force and we are going to have the Space Force—separate but equal. It’s going to be something.”
He looked around the room for Joseph Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. “General Dunford, if you would carry that assignment out, I would be very greatly honored,” he said.
The line was met with applause. Dunford, however, isn’t exactly the right person for the job. If the president wants to create a brand-new military branch, an armed force dedicated entirely to the cosmos, he first needs Congress. The country’s youngest military branch, the Air Force, was established in 1947 through an act of Congress. A space force, or any other future military branches, will need to be authorized in the same way. And it looks like it won’t happen as quickly as the president hopes.
Lawmakers in the House of Representatives and the Senate reached a deal on Monday on a defense policy bill for the fiscal year 2019, and the legislation makes no mention of a “space force.” The deal—which will face votes in the House and Senate this summer before reaching Trump’s desk—directs the secretary of defense’s office to “develop a space warfighting policy,” but it doesn’t recommend officials explore the possibility of the military branch that Trump spoke of so enthusiastically last month.
The absence of a space force in the defense bill means that Congress has ignored Trump on this wish. This is not uncommon: Congressional lawmakers have routinely ignored the president on various proposals since he took office. Unless congressional Republicans were already proposing the same thing, they have generally shrugged off Trump’s requests, especially his budget plans, and moved on.
It could be that it was simply too late to include support for a space force in this bill. A day after Trump made a declaration for a sixth military branch, the House and Senate moved their negotiations into a bicameral conference committee, the final phase before a deal is reached, and where significant changes to a bill are unlikely.
But given the military community’s reaction to Trump’s demand, the omission feels like a message: The idea isn’t ready for prime time.
The Pentagon opposes the creation of a space force, and it did so long before Trump ever floated the idea to the public. In June of last year, defense officials shot down a proposal in the House for a “space corps,” a new service that would be housed in the Air Force and oversee all space-related military operations. “The Pentagon is complicated enough,” Heather Wilson, the Air Force secretary, told reporters at the time. “This will make it more complex, add more boxes to the organization chart, and cost more money. If I had more money, I would put it into lethality, not bureaucracy.”
The House measure to create a space corps eventually failed, and the idea appeared to be fading from view. And then came Trump. The president first revived the idea in March, during a visit to a Marine Corps base. The Pentagon, unsurprisingly, went silent. To disapprove of the idea as they did last year would mean publicly rebuking their president’s wishes. Officials similarly stayed mum after Trump doubled down on the idea last month. Their statements were cautious and vague.
“We understand the president’s guidance,” said Defense Department spokeswoman Dana White in June. “Our policy board will begin working on this issue, which has implications for intelligence operations for the Air Force, Army, Marines, and Navy. Working with Congress, this will be a deliberate process with a great deal of input from multiple stakeholders.”
“We’ll see where it takes us,” said Brigadier General Tim Lawson, deputy commanding general for operations at the Army Space and Missile Defense Command. “Do we want to be part of the space force? That is yet to be determined.”
Without strong, public support from military leaders for the idea, congressional lawmakers have no incentive to include in their legislation any mention, no matter how small, of a space force.
In the meantime, defense officials have heeded the president’s call and are at least exploring the concept. The Pentagon has enlisted CNA, a nonprofit research organization, to study the feasibility of a standalone military branch for space. A preliminary report is expected to be completed in August, and a final report will be submitted to Congress by the end of the year, according to a CNA spokesperson.
Mike Rogers, a Republican congressman and one of the co-sponsors of the “space corps” legislation, hopes the idea will come up again—in the next year. “Once the ongoing reports are completed, we in Congress can begin the work of fully fleshing out the Space Force in preparation for next year’s [defense bill],” Rogers said in a statement Tuesday. “Because of the work of previous [bills], the existing organizations that will be organized under the space force will be on a much stronger footing than when this process started.”
A White House spokesperson has not yet responded to a request for comment on the latest defense bill. But even with an official comment from the administration, it’s impossible to predict whether Trump’s support for a space force will waver in the face of congressional indifference or simply continue to intensify. When the president has spoken about creating a new military branch, the remarks have usually been ad-libbed. It’s difficult to gauge his seriousness and sincerity on this, and many other, proposals. Richard Wolf, the director of the Air Force Historical Support Division, said to me last month: “You never know whether he’ll just forget about it or if he’ll actually carry it out.”