The White House says it is pushing ahead with plans to establish a new U.S. space force, but the first steps will stop short of creating a sixth branch of the military as touted earlier this year by President Donald Trump.
The White House does not foresee the creation of an independent space force before 2020, Vice President Mike Pence told a space conference in Washington on October 23. Pence is head of the National Space Council, a government body that was revived last year to draw up plans for the space force envisioned by Trump.
Pence said the president will soon ask Congress to gather military and civilians working on space security into a unified command, similar to the military's special forces.
"The National Space Council is making recommendations to the president to essentially begin with establishing a unified space command, much in the way that we established a Special Forces command," he said. "Let's begin by bringing everyone under a unified command."
According to Pence, about 60,000 people are currently working on space security in the United States, across various branches of the military and intelligence services.
"It will not in the first instance look like other branches of the service...It will be a consolidation, we believe, and from there future Congresses and future administrations can grow and expand and nurture...the space force as they see fit," Pence said.
Congress must approve the White House plans. The notion of creating a space force on par with the U.S. Army or Air Force has sparked controversy among lawmakers, many of whom oppose the expense or want military space operations to remain part of the Air Force.
Pence said the administration would work with Congress, starting next year, on drafting a law creating an independent space force by 2020.
The head of the U.S. Air Force said last month that creating a space force would cost about $13 billion for a force of 13,000 people in the first five years.
The U.S. military currently is made up of five branches: the Army, Air Force, Navy, Marines, and Coast Guard.
The space force proposal has been criticized for stepping up the militarization of space, despite international treaties supposedly designating space as a peaceful domain.
But Pence claimed that Russia and China already have military operations in space and said potential threats in space include anti-satellite weapons, airborne lasers, "highly threatening in-orbit activities and evasive hypersonic missiles."
"This is what our competitors are already doing," Pence said. "Space is a war-fighting domain, just like the land, air, and sea, and America will be as dominant there as we are here on Earth," he told the space council on October 23.
The space force will be designed "to ensure that our war fighters have the freedom and flexibility they need to deter and defeat any threat to our security in the rapidly evolving battlefield of space," he said.