President Donald Trump issued an order Tuesday creating a new U.S. Space Command within the Air Force, giving an official stamp to plans that have occupied senior leaders at the Offutt-based U.S. Strategic Command for months.
U.S. space forces have operated under StratCom’s control for more than 15 years. Now StratCom will spin off those forces as a separate, independent and equal joint military command.
The move is separate from Trump’s controversial initiative to form a separate service branch called the Space Force, but it could lead in that direction.
“The focus of this command is making sure that U.S. Space Command gets stood up correctly, in the early part of 2019,” StratCom Commander Gen. John Hyten said in an interview last month with The World-Herald. “That’s where the energy of everybody here is focused.”
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The focus on space operations has grown in recent years as powers like Russia and China, and even Iran and North Korea, have gained the ability to target sensitive U.S. military satellites.
The United States military is dependent on a network of orbiting satellites that perform all sorts of essential functions, including missile warning, GPS and guiding precision munitions, communication and even spying.
According to one U.S. official, the command would pull about 600 staff from existing military space offices and then add at least 1,000 over the coming years. The estimated cost of roughly $800 million would mainly cover the additional staff.
Hyten said it’s not yet clear how many StratCom jobs might move elsewhere. But he expects the impact to be small because most space-related operations already are based elsewhere — particularly at Petersen and Schriever Air Force Bases in Colorado Springs and Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.
Until the new Space Command is fully operational, he said, StratCom will continue to be involved in space-related matters.
“There’ll be a Space Command-East at Offutt Air Force Base because we’re not going to peel out everything this headquarters does,” Hyten said.
An independent U.S. Space Command existed from 1985 to 2002 but was disbanded after the 9/11 terrorist attacks so that U.S. Northern Command could be established, focusing on defense of the homeland.
At that time, responsibility for space became one of StratCom’s responsibilities, along with nuclear warfare and deterrence, intelligence surveillance and reconnaissance, missile defense and, until recently, cyberwarfare.
Hyten has spent much of his Air Force career working on space-related issues. He once commanded the Air Force’s 50th Space Wing. Later he served as vice commander, and then commander, of the Air Force Space Command before becoming StratCom’s chief in 2016. Two of his three predecessors at StratCom also came from the Space Command.
The Trump administration’s Space Force concept, unveiled last summer by Vice President Mike Pence, would pull all of the military units focused on space and satellites together into their own branch of the armed forces, starting as early as 2020.
The Space Force would be separate from the Army, Navy and Air Force, as well as the Marine Corps and Coast Guard.
But it is highly controversial, even within Trump’s own Republican Party. Rep. Don Bacon, R-Neb., supports the creation of a Space Force, while Sen. Deb Fischer, R-Neb., wants to keep space activities within the Air Force. Both serve on the Armed Services Committee of their respective chambers.
Until Trump tweeted his support for the Space Force last spring, the idea was opposed within the Air Force. The idea has been criticized as too expensive and for creating new layers of military bureaucracy. Cost estimates have ranged from less than $5 billion to as much as $13 billion.
The new Space Force would require congressional approval, but standing up the Space Command does not.
Hyten told The World-Herald that he is involved with other top military leaders in discussions about creating the Space Force, but he declined to disclose details. He said it would be part of the Trump administration’s 2020 budget proposal, which will be unveiled in February.
“The president said he wants a Space Force. And now we just have to tell him, here’s what it looks like,” Hyten said. “And that’s where we are.”
This report includes material from the Associated Press and the Washington Post.