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Military Space Corps closer after vote in Congress

Vice President Mike Pence watches a video on space operators and the risks of not protecting military satellites, during his visit at Schriever Air Force Base, Colo., Friday, June 23, 2017. He is with Gen. Jay Raymond, commander of Air Force Space Command, and Heather Wilson, Secretary of the Air Force.

CHRISTOPHER DEWITT/U.S. AIR FORCE

By TIM LOCKETTE | The Anniston Star, Ala. (Tribune News Service) | Published: November 19, 2017

Congress has rejected an Alabama lawmaker’s plan to create a branch of the military just for outer space.

But within the national defense budget bill, now awaiting President Donald Trump’s signature, is a blueprint for creating a Space Corps in the not-too-distant future.

“This is just the first step,” Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Saks, was quoted as saying in a joint press release with Rep. Jim Cooper, D-Tenn., earlier this month.

Rogers is chairman of the House Subcommittee on Strategic Forces, which oversees the missiles and bombs that make up America’s nuclear deterrent.In recent years, he’s grown increasingly vocal in calling for a separate branch of the military just for outer space.

The military relies on satellites for key military functions such as navigation. The U.S. first shot down a satellite, in a test designed to demonstrate the capability, in the 1980s. China conducted a similar test 10 years ago. Experts in the field say Russia and China may be developing less-destructive tools to knock or nudge satellites out of orbit.

Rogers maintains that America could get behind in that space race, largely because military space equipment is in the hands of multiple agencies with no central authority to control it. His plan was to pinch off the satellite force into a separate military branch nestled within the Air Force, similar to the relationship between the Marine Corps and the Navy.

That plan made it into the House version of this year’s budget bill. The Senate approved an alternate bill that expressly prohibited creation of a sixth branch. The Air Force opposed Rogers’ idea, saying it would create still more bureaucracy in space warfare.

The final draft of the defense budget bill, passed this week and sent to the president, doesn’t give Rogers his independent military branch. But it does organize much of the existing space assets under the existing Air Force Space Command. It eliminates some other offices with oversight over space. And it requires the Pentagon to begin studying plans to create a Space Force, similar to the military branch Rogers wanted.

“I think, in the net, it’s a win for him,” said Todd Harrison, an analyst for the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Rogers, in a press release, compared the move to the creation of the Army Air Corps in 1926. The Air Corps evolved into the Air Force, but only after two decades and a massive conflict — World War II — changed the way planes were used in combat.

“I don’t think it will take 20 years to create a Space Force,” Harrison said. “There are changes going on in the space environment already.”

Harrison said the study required by the budget bill could lead to a Space Force in three to five years, with the caveat that Congress can change its mind in that time.

Little would change immediately in spending on military space efforts, Harrison said, and there’s likely little in the bill for Alabama military bases. Changes could come to bases in Colorado and California, Harrison said. The National Reconnaissance Office, which runs spy satellites, would remain under control of the intelligence community.

Even if a separate Space Corps is created, Harrison said, the bill would send would-be officers to the Air Force Academy and enlisted recruits to Air Force basic training in San Antonio. Space cadets, or “spaceman” as a rank, are likely off the table, he said.

Attempts to reach Rogers for comment on the bill were unsuccessful last week.

Actual weapons used by a Space Corps would likely be kept secret, at least at first, Harrison said. They’re likely to include lasers that can blind enemy satellites, microwave devices that can fry their electronics or jamming equipment to block their signals. Blowing up enemy satellites with missiles is possible, but experts have warned that one major conflict with those weapons could fill space with debris that would make it hard to use satellites in the future.

“Imagine if every time a plane was shot down, the debris stayed in the air, just floating around up there,” Harrison said.

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©2017 The Anniston Star (Anniston, Ala.)

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