The Trump administration's recently called for the creation of a "Space Force" by 2020, but the independent military service dedicated to war fighting in space is likely several years away, according to retired Air Force Lt. Gen. David Deptula of the Mitchell Institute.
The Pentagon unveiled plans last week to establish several key components of the new Space Force, including a new combatant command for space, a new joint agency for satellite purchases, and a new warfighting community that incorporates space operators from across the services—none of which needs approval from Congress. The creation of a sixth military branch, however, first requires legislative action.
In a speech at the Pentagon on Thursday, Vice President Mike Pence pledged the administration would establish a Space Force by the end of the decade, calling for "American dominance" in space against adversaries such as Russia and China.
"Just as we’ve done in ages past, the United States of America, under [President Trump's] leadership, will meet the emerging threats on this new battlefield with American ingenuity and strength to defend our nation, protect our people, and carry the cause of liberty and peace into the next great American frontier," Pence said. "The time has come to establish the United States Space Force."
Defense Secretary Jim Mattis expressed his support for the plan on Sunday.
"We’re in favor of war-fighting capability organized along the lines of what the president laid out," Mattis told reporters.
Mattis, who opposed a move by Congress last year to set up a separate space service, said his hesitance was not with the space corps itself, but with the lack of consensus among Pentagon officials about what problems needed to be addressed.
"I was not against setting up a Space Force," he said. "What I was against is rushing to do that before we define those problems."
The Pentagon is set to submit a legislative proposal for a Space Force early next year.
"Standing up a combatant command is appropriate, but the conditions have not been met yet to stand up a separate force," Deptula told the Washington Free Beacon. "If you want to set up an armed service, you have to have an organization that has the capacity to conduct combat operations equivalent to the other services in space and from space and we don't have that yet."
Deptula said the administration is also missing a "demonstrated, unique, actionable theory" regarding space power and space warfare, which is necessary for strategic coherence.
Citing the separation of the Air Force from the Army in 1947, Deptula said the military demonstrated conclusively that air power could achieve strategic results independent of ground forces. Unlike in World War II, the military has yet to test space capabilities to the extent that lawmakers would be convinced of establishing an independent military branch.
"Can we currently achieve destruction of an adversary ICBM launch in its boost phase from space? No," Deptula said. "When we can do that, then it's time to start discussing standing up a new service."
"That's another key issue here—a lot of people in Congress and the administration don't understand the difference between a combatant command and a service. Services don't fight—they organize, train, and equip components, which are then assigned to the combatant command, which assembles those components to execute the operations."
In arguing for the creation of a Space Force, administration officials have pointed to Russian and Chinese advancements in developing anti-satellite missiles and hypersonic weapons capable of jamming or downing U.S. capabilities. Deptula said the segregation of space operations from the Air Force too soon would only thin resources and create unnecessary bureaucracy.
"If the issue is there's a concern there's not enough resources being applied to deterrence, defense, and potential offensive capabilities to be able to operate in space, you're not going to solve that by setting up a separate service," he said. "The issue here is what's in the best interest of the nation's defense and if we want to increase the resource allocation to space operations, Congress can do that."