The Pentagon is laying the groundwork for a future Space Force, moving closer to an order from President Trump earlier this summer to create a sixth branch of the armed forces.
Speaking at the Pentagon on Thursday, Vice President Mike Pence announced sweeping changes that reorganize how the Department of Defense handles space operations, even if Congress does not authorize the establishment of a separate Department of the Space Force.
"Now, the time has come to write the next great chapter in the history of the Armed Forces of the United States - to prepare for the next battlefield where America's best and bravest will be called to deter and defeat a new generation of threats to our people and our nation," Pence said. "The time has come to establish the United States Space Force."
The vice president insisted that the force, which the administration hopes to have in place by 2020, would "not be built from scratch," but draw from the men and women who are already running America's space programs.
Pence outlined a Pentagon report, led by Deputy Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan, that will be delivered to Congress on Thursday, that details what the department can do unilaterally to implement the president's desire for a space force.
It includes the establishment of a U.S. Space Command, a new combatant command focused on space as a warfighting domain. Currently, a three-star Space Command falls under the Air Force, headquartered at Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado responsible for 30,000 personnel worldwide.
A new Space Operations Force will train, promote, and retain personnel to include engineers, scientists, intelligence experts, operators, strategists, and others. The idea would be similar to how special operations forces from across the military services are distributed to various commands. A Department of the Space Force would likely have similar responsibilities to the other services, which is to train and equip their service members for military operations around the globe that are controlled by combatant commands.
The report also calls for an acquisition-focused Space Development Agency.
It's unclear how these changes would be integrated into or exist alongside the creation of a separate Department of the Space Force should Congress authorize its existence next year.
While there is broad recognition of the necessity of protecting the U.S. military's assets in space - with satellites playing a central role in modern everyday life and military operations - there remains vigorous debate about the virtues of creating a separate military branch.
Senators James Inhofe, R-Oklahoma, and Mike Rounds, R-South Dakota, who are both on the Armed Services Committee, have indicated that they would not be likely to support a separate branch.
When the idea of creating a space corps within the Air Force was brought before Congress in 2017, Defense Secretary James Mattis rejected the idea as a superfluous "additional organizational and administrative tail" on the military.
"At a time when we are trying to integrate the department's joint warfighting functions, I do not wish to add a separate service that would likely present a narrower and even parochial approach to space operations," Mattis said in a 2017 letter responding to Rep. Michael R. Turner, R-Ohio, who opposed the congressional effort to create a Space Corps.
What's changed since then is that Trump has become increasingly focused on the subject and concluded that a new military branch is needed.
"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. 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. It is going to be something," President Trump announced at a June meeting of the National Space Council.
Speaking to reporters on Tuesday, Mattis said he was in support of the creation of a separate combatant command for space, adding that his department was in "complete alignment with the president's concerns about protecting our assets in space."
The U.S. military currently has 77 satellites in orbit that could be vulnerable to potential attack from adversaries like Russia and China that have taken aggressive postures in space.
Pence pointed to Russia's development of airborne lasers to disrupt space-based systems and China's successful demonstration of how a missile can track and destroy satellites.
"Both China and Russia have been conducting highly sophisticated 'on-orbit' activities that could enable them to maneuver their satellites into close proximity with ours, posing unprecedented new dangers to our space systems," Pence said. "Both nations are also investing heavily in hypersonic missiles that are designed to fly up to 5 miles per second and at such low altitudes that they could evade detection by our missile-defense radars. In fact, China claimed to have made its first successful test of a hypersonic vehicle just last week."
"America will always seek peace, in space as on earth," Pence said. "But history proves that peace only comes through strength. And in the realm of outer space, the United States Space Force will be that strength."