Vice President Mike Pence called Thursday for the establishment of a Space Force by 2020, while also announcing immediate steps the Department of Defense would take to reform how the military approaches space.
"The time has come to establish the Unites States Space Force," Pence said in a speech to US military and civilian personnel at the Pentagon, citing threats from China and Russia.
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"Our Administration will soon take action to implement these recommendations with the objective of establishing the United States Department of the Space Force by 2020," Pence added.
In June, President Donald Trump said he was directing "the Pentagon to immediately begin the process necessary to establish a Space Force as the sixth branch of the armed forces," during a speech at a meeting of the National Space Council.
While the establishment of a new military service would require legislation to be passed by Congress, Pence's strong endorsement could signal new momentum for the creation of the first new branch of the armed forces since the Air Force was established in the 1940s.
Pence's speech was timed to coincide with the release of the Pentagon's report to Congress on the recommended organization and management structure of space components for the Department of Defense.
"Today the Department of Defense will release a report outlining the first stages of our administration's plan to implement the President's guidance and turn his vision into a reality," Pence said.
He said that the report "identifies concrete steps that our administration will take to lay the foundation for a new Department of the Space Force."
The report calls for the creation of a new major unified Combatant Command called US Space Command, which would be akin to the operational commands that oversee US troops in the Middle East and the Indo-Pacific.
Officials say that the new command will likely incorporate existing space-focused organizations such as the US Air Force's Space Command, which oversees some 30,000 military and civilian personnel and which is headquartered at Peterson Air Force Base, Colorado.
The vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Paul Selva, told reporters Thursday that there are approximately 18,000 US military and civilian personnel in the Department of Defense who are involved in space operations, helping to oversee some 140 satellites.
The report says the new command will "improve and evolve space warfighting," focusing on doctrine, tactics, techniques and procedures, making it akin to Special Operations Command, which provides a similar function for US Special Operations Forces such as US Navy SEALs and Army Special Forces.
The Pentagon's report, which was provided to Congress shortly before Pence's speech, also seeks to establish a new acquisition agency, the Space Development Agency, "charged with rapidly developing and fielding next-generation capabilities," not unlike the role the Missile Defense Agency plays in missile defense.
Pence said the new agency would help the Department of Defense "break free from ineffective and duplicative bureaucratic structures."
The report also calls for the creation of "a Space Operations Force of career space experts who are trained, promoted and retained as space warfighting professionals" to include engineers, scientists, intelligence experts, operators and strategists.
'Not a simple process'
Pence and the report noted that congressional action would be required to establish a new military branch, but said the Trump administration would work with Congress to establish the force and would seek funding for it in its next defense budget request.
The Pentagon's report was welcomed by some members of Congress.
"We are glad that the Pentagon is finally taking these steps in enhancing our space strength," Republican Rep. Mike Rogers of Alabama and Democratic Rep. Jim Cooper of Tennessee, the Chairman and Ranking Member of the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Strategic Forces, said in a statement following the report's release.
"This report is a step in a multi-year process that we think will result in a safer, stronger America," they said.
Pence said the creation of a new Space Force is "not a simple process" and said the Trump Administration will create a new civilian position to oversee the growth and expansion of the force, an Assistant Secretary of Defense for Space who will report directly to the Secretary of Defense.
Pence cited new threats the US faces in space, particularly from Russia and China.
"Recently our adversaries have been working to bring new weapons of war into space itself," Pence said. He said Beijing and Moscow have been developing missiles, lasers and other technologies with the aim of targeting US satellites.
He also said Russia and China were developing weapons, such as hypersonic missiles, to launch attacks from space here on Earth.
"What was once peaceful and uncontested is now crowded and adversarial, today other nations are seeking to disrupt our space based systems and challenge American supremacy in space," Pence said.
"Our adversaries have transformed space into a warfighting domain already and the United States will not shrink from this challenge," Pence added.
On Tuesday, Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis called Pence "the point man" on issues pertaining to the US military and space.
Mattis had previously opposed the creation of a separate military branch focused on space, writing to Rep. Mike Turner of Ohio in July of 2017 that he did "not wish to add a separate service that would likely present a narrower and even parochial approach to space operations."
The Trump administration has since passed a defense budget that included a significant increase in defense spending after which Mattis echoed support for Trump's idea of a Space Force. On Tuesday, he said that he was "in complete alignment with the President's concern about protecting our assets in space that contribute to our security, to our economy."
Asked about Mattis' apparent evolution on the issue, Deputy Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan told reporters that Mattis' previous opposition was due to the circumstances at the time, including tighter Pentagon budgets.
The US military was operating under continuing resolutions and undergoing a "belt tightening exercise," Shanahan said Thursday, adding that, due to constrained resources, Mattis was concerned about having additional overhead and bureaucracy.
One taxpayer watchdog group said the potential cost and duplication of a Space Force is a concern.
"If we create a whole new branch of the military, the Space Force secretary would also have all attendant staff and overhead, plus dozens of generals, officers, and staff," said Stephen Ellis, executive vice president of Taxpayers for Common Sense. "Except we already have the Air Force Space Command, while the Navy and the Army also already have their own space-related operations."
Ellis said history indicates that it isn't likely the Pentagon will get rid of redundancies. "When Army Air Forces was turned into the Air Force in 1947 it's not like other services quit their aviation components," Ellis said in a statement. "And how would a Space Force work with NASA?"
Shanahan said that he did not know how much the proposed Space Force would cost, but said that it could cost billions of dollars.
"We don't have that cost estimation yet," Shanahan told reporters while adding, "I would assume it's billions."