The U.S. military could soon be battling on a new frontier.... space.
The House Armed Services Committee has approved a proposal to set up a new service branch dedicated to outer space warfare called the Space Corps.
The U.S. military is increasingly operating missions in space, and protecting satellites and other infrastructure beyond earth's atmosphere is critical for American missions on the ground.
"We rely on it for navigation, we rely on it for communications. The US military as it's currently designed and it currently operates would be incapable of being effective in war if we lost access to space," said Stephen Biddle, a professor of international affairs at George Washington University who formerly served on multiple military strategic assessment teams.
Space is also becoming more and more dangerous, and the U.S. could soon have to combat unfriendly forces to protect our operations on the ground.
"Countries like China and Russia are investing and are testing in a variety of capabilities that are very very worrisome to the United States," said Deborah Lee James, a former Secretary of the Air Force.
In 2007 China successfully tested an anti-satellite weapon, taking down one of its own satellites. The U.S. has the same capabilities, but the expansion of the military space missions could turn space into a new battlefield.
"Space, years ago was considered a peaceful domain. No longer," James said. "Now we need to call a spade a spade. It's a possible war fighting domain."
But if you're thinking Space Corps will look like an intergalactic fleet, don't get your hopes up.
"A new Space Corps is probably not going to launch the Starship Enterprise any time soon," Biddle said.
Although the exact parameters for the new military branch are unclear, the House proposal would make Space Corps the central authority on space lift, satellite and other missions.
The Air Force currently controls via most of these missions via its Space Command, headquartered at Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado. Space Command would become the headquarters for the new Space Corps.
Although Space Corps would be it's own independent service branch, it would operate as part of the Air Force, much like the Marine Corps operates as part of the Navy.
Creating a new Space Corps would put more emphasis on the military's missions in space and it would establish new key positions in the military hierarchy, like a new four-star chief of staff of the Space Corps who would become the Joint Chiefs of Staff’s eighth member.
Rep. Mike Rogers (R-AL) has been one of the biggest advocates for setting up a Space Corps. He and other advocates argue that the U.S. military currently isn't focused enough on space innovation.
"Russia and China have become near peers,” Rogers told NPR. “They're close to surpassing us. What we're proposing would change that.”
But military leaders, including the current Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson, are squarely against it.
“The Pentagon is complicated enough,” Wilson told reporters on June 21. “This will make it more complex, add more boxes to the organization chart.”
James, who says she's spoken with Rogers about space missions at length, agrees.
"Space is very very important. There’s no doubt about that, but I think any action that would add bureaucracy and cause the disintegration of the space mission from all the other missions of the Air Force, I think that’s the wrong move at this juncture," she said.
She argues that Congress should instead address problems the Air Force is currently facing in regard to space missions, and should appropriate more money to help beef up Space Command.
"Unless we lift sequestration, space and every other area is going to suffer," James said.
She also argued that the Air Force already has a centralized point of contact for space war fighting missions, General John Hyten, who is the current chief of U.S. Strategic Command and the Secretary of the Air Force is in charge of coordinating with other parts of government.
"I believe we have these two belly buttons, one for strategy, budget and approach across the government and one for war fighting and that's as it should be," James said.
It's not uncommon for Congress and the military to have disagreements over different priorities, Biddle said.
"There are a variety of things that the military considers un-sexy, but various people in Congress think are important, and that tends to create tension. The A-10, which the Air Force would like to get rid of, has famously been a cause celeb for some members of the Congress and the Senate, particularly John McCain," he explained.
Space Corps is not a done deal. The Senate is currently going over its own Defense Authorization Bill for 2018.
The bill hasn't been revealed yet, but the final version would need to include language establishing Space Corps for the sixth branch of the military to come to fruition.