|Many U.S. military space and cyberspace assets are part of the U.S. Air Force Space Command|
This week President Donald Trump announced that he is ordering the creation of a new U.S. Space Force as a separate branch of the U.S. military.
If history is any guide, the president will have a very difficult time getting his wish. A Space Force separate from the the U.S. Air Force (USAF), U.S. Army, U.S. Navy, and the Marine Corps (which is officially part of the navy), can only be created with the formal consent of Congress and the acquiescence of unhappy branches of the military, particularly the USAF, that would lose out with this change.
I have extensively studied and written about the history of U.S. military missile programs in the decade following World War II. Those events were shaped by the conflicts that preceded and followed the creation of the USAF on September 18, 1947. Prior to that time, the air force had been part of the U.S. Army, and both the army and navy fought hard to prevent the creation of the air force as a separate service, knowing that it would break with tradition and fearing correctly that such a new service would reduce their funding and their powers.
A major arena of this conflict was Congress, where many members of the House and Senate had longstanding relationships with the army and navy due to their own past service, the presence of major bases or plants in their districts, or relationships with military figures. Congress had blocked several attempts to reorganize the U.S. armed forces before President Harry S. Truman tried again in December 1945 with a plan to reorganize the military under a single Department of Defense.
Congress passed the National Security Act reorganizing the military in 1947, but only after what one knowledgeable reporter called "the worst feud among the armed forces that the United States has ever known.” The bill was greatly watered down from Truman’s proposal, and required major changes later on to create a coherent Department of Defense. The newly created USAF spent its first decade battling with the army and navy for control of missile programs.
The navy took extraordinary and successful measures to prevent its aviation assets from going to the USAF. All navy air assets have always been fully integrated into navy operations, and there has never been a naval air arm that could be easily broken away. In the name of defending naval aviation, top navy officers fought air force efforts to get control of nuclear weapons in the late 1940s and into the 1950s.
Soon after it was created, the USAF began promoting the concept of "aerospace" to defend its own jurisdiction in space, and this word still forms the core of its view of space operations.
For more than 30 years there has been talk of a Space Corps under USAF control or even an autonomous Space Force, and President Trump has raised this idea several times since taking office last year. All this talk, including Trump’s Space Force announcement this week, has been met with criticism from leading military and congressional figures.
Such a space force would presumably include America’s strategic missile force, much of which is controlled by the air force. An important part of the strategic missile force is submarine launched ballistic missiles controlled by the navy. And both the air force and navy possess other important space assets, including the global positioning system and other military satellite systems. The army has strong links to anti-ballistic missile systems and other defensive missiles. Since the 1980s, U.S. spending on military space has exceeded civilian space spending, so there is a great deal at stake.
Donald Trump stands out from all of his predecessors in that he came to his office without any previous military or governmental service. The issue of a Space Force is not of special interest to his political base, so the president may be in for a rude shock when he tries to breathe life into his idea of a U.S. Space Force. Many people in the Pentagon and on Capitol Hill support the military space status quo, and history suggests that they will fight to defend it.