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SpaceX's Iridium 2 launch. (Credit: SpaceX)

Inside the fight behind Trump's 'Space Force'

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WASHINGTON (Circa) -- It's not science fiction, the President of the United States has ordered the military to begin the process to create a space force -- an entire military branch dedicated to space -- but the idea has been around for some time.

It was a bi-partisan pair of congressmen, Rep. Mike Rogers (R-AL) and Rep. Jim Cooper (D-TN), who first suggested the idea of creating a military service focused on space operations within the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) in late 2017. Back then, they referred to it as a "Space Corps," and they envisioned it would operate under the Air Force, much like the Marine Corps does under the Navy. But Trump's announcement appears to take it a step further.

"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," said Trump on Monday. "That's a big statement. We are going to have the Air Force and we are going to have the space force. Separate but equal."

Those words suggest an independent military service, which means the Space Force would be taking some responsibilities from other military branches. That's not something easily done in Washington, where bureaucrats and generals alike are known to jealously guard their turfs. Currently, the Air Force's Space Command is predominantly in charge of space operations in the military. The service currently has around 4,000 airmen working in space-related fields, according to Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson, and it plans to increase spending on space-related issues. While the military has generally been hesitant to add a dedicated Space Force, it is the Air Force that has been particularly vocal in it's opposition.

Trump announces plans for Pentagon to create 'Space Force'

"While I applaud the leadership of Congress and the welcomed focus on national security in space, which I view as a national imperative, our approach is to normalize, elevate, and integrate space as a war-fighting domain," wrote Air Force Gen. John Raymond, in an op-ed for Defense One last July. "It’s an approach that’s already paying dividends."

The op-ed, titled "We Need to Focus on Space; We Don't Need a 'Space Corps,'" explained how the Air Force and the military as a whole has incorporated space into its regular operations. It was a rare example of the military publicly weighing in on a political issue in Congress.

The Air Force's apprehension to the Space Corps initiative infuriated Rogers, who expressed his displeasure at a conference on the issue in February, which did not feature any Air Force speakers.

"I'd like to see them here today to explain what they are going to do. They chose not to be here," Rogers told attendees, according to Space News. "It'd be nice to know what they're going to do."

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Both he and Cooper criticized the Air Force for stalling previous legislative initiatives aimed at updating space initiatives and improving technology.

The Space Corps proposal ultimately did not make it into the 2018 NDAA, but the law did include a provision directing the military to commission an independent study on space-related military issues.

There's still a long way to go before we see service members donned in Space Force uniforms, but Trump's backing could breathe new life into the idea. Trump can order the military to prepare for a new service, as he already did with his Monday announcement, but getting Congress on board will be a tough hurdle. Rogers and Cooper might be on board, but there are some members who might stand in his way.

"The president told a US general to create a new Space Force as 6th branch of military today, which generals tell me they don't want," said Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL) in a tweet. "Thankfully the president can't do it without Congress because now is NOT the time to rip the Air Force apart. Too many important missions at stake."

It's been more than 70 years since the last new military branch (the Air Force) was created as part of the National Security Act of 1947, one of the largest national security overhauls in U.S. history. Rogers and Cooper envisioned the Space Corps going operational in 2019, whether Trump will be able to meet that time frame with the Space Force remains to be seen.

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