Image: AP

Earlier today, President Donald Trump signed a directive to create the Space Force, what will become the sixth branch of the U.S. military—but the new branch will be placed under the purview of the U.S. Air Force, rather than being a separate and autonomous branch, as the president had initially hoped.

Back in June 2018, Trump announced his intention to create the Space Force, saying it would become the sixth independent branch of the U.S. military by 2020 and that it would be “separate but equal.” The Space Force—the first new branch of the military in more than seven decades—would allow the U.S. to keep pace with China and Russia, he said, both of which are developing space-based weaponry. In August, Vice President Mike Pence told a Pentagon audience that space has become a warfighting domain like “land, air, and sea,” requiring a branch dedicated to protecting U.S. interests and assets in space.

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The directive signed today orders the creation of the Space Force, but it’ll be a slimmer, less-autonomous version than the one initially described, at least at first.

“The president has directed the Secretary of Defense to draft a legislative proposal that, if enacted, would establish the U.S. Space Force as the sixth branch of the Armed Forces within the Department of the Air Force. This is a step toward a future, separate military department for space,” a senior White House administrative official reportedly told journalists earlier today, according to The Hill.

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The new version of the Space Force should be more palatable to members of Congress, some of whom have expressed concerns that the new branch would introduce unnecessary bureaucratic bloat and massive costs. The Air Force should also find it more appetizing, as it gets to monitor the new division while retaining its reach into space. In September, a “leaked” Air Force document claimed the proposed Space Force would cost $13 billion over five years, as opposed to the $8 billion cited by the Trump administration.

In addition to falling under the purview of the Air Force, the pared-down Space Force will require the Pentagon to consolidate its existing functions “to minimize duplication of effort and eliminate bureaucratic inefficiencies,” the White House official explained. Anyone currently working on space defense, whether military or civilian, will be moved to the Space Force. The branch will get its own four-star general, who will serve on the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and an Air Force undersecretary for space—a civilian position—will confirmed by the Senate, The Hill reports.

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It’ll take years to create the Space Force, as well as several phases of implementation, the official said. The price tag for the new Space Force headquarters should be less than $100 million, but costs are not yet set in stone. The White House official said money for the Space Force will be included in the administration’s proposed budget for 2020, adding that there’s still enough time to get the proposed order into the current year’s defense policy bill. Of course, Trump’s idea still needs to go through hearings, which have yet to be scheduled. The White House official was optimistic that the proposal will be sent to Congress before budget submissions are due in mid-March.

Importantly, Trump’s updated directive doesn’t mean the administration has lost sight of its original goal of creating a “separate but equal” branch of the U.S. Armed Forces dedicated to space.

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“We haven’t abandoned that goal, and in fact we’re achieving, I think with this directive, the president’s number one objective, which is a separate armed service,” the White House official said. “We’ve heard the concerns from Congress about not creating a large bureaucratic organization, and I think our thought was if we start going directly to a military department, which I think is our desired end state, then we would spend a lot of time dealing with bureaucracy and structure and not focusing on war fighting.”

From here, the proposal goes to Congress. Given these changes, the House could very well pass the order, as some members have supported the idea in the past.

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[The Hill, USA Today]