WASHINGTON - Vice President Mike Pence laid out an ambitious plan Thursday that would begin creating a military command dedicated to space and establish a "Space Force" as the sixth branch of the U.S. military as soon as 2020, the first since the Air Force was formed shortly after World War II.
Pence warned of the advancements that potential adversaries were making and issued what amounted to a call to arms to preserve the military's dominance in space.
"Just as we've done in ages past, the United States will meet the merging threats on this new battlefield," he said in a speech at the Pentagon. "The time has come to establish the United States Space Force."
But the monumental task of standing up a new military department, which would require approval by a Congress that shelved the idea last year, may require significant new spending and a reorganization of the largest bureaucracy in the world. And the idea has already run into fierce opposition inside and outside the Pentagon, particularly from the Air Force, which could lose some of its responsibilities.
Defense Secretary Jim Mattis last year said he opposed a new department of the military "at a time when we are focused on reducing overhead and integrating joint warfighting functions."
This week, Mattis said the Pentagon and the White House "are in complete alignment" on the need to view space as a warfighting domain. But he stopped short of endorsing a full-fledged Space Force. In a briefing with reporters after Pence's speech, Deputy Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan suggested that Mattis' comments opposing the Space Force were made at a different time, before the Pentagon received a bolstered budget.
White House officials have been working with national security leaders to aggressively move ahead without Congress. The first step is creating a new U.S. Space Command by the end of the year, which would be led by a four-star general, the way the Pentagon's Indo-Pacific Command oversees those regions.
The new command would pull space experts from across the armed services, and there would be a separate acquisitions office, dedicated to buying satellites and developing new technology to help the military win wars in space.
The White House intends to work with lawmakers to introduce legislation by early next year, a senior administration official said, with the hopes of standing up the first new military department since the Air Force was formed in 1947.
After Pence's speech, Reps. Mike Rogers, R-Ala., and Jim Cooper, D-Tenn., members of the House Armed Services Committee, praised the move, saying a Space Force "will result in a safer, stronger America."
"We have been warning for years of the need to protect our space assets and to develop more capable space systems," they said in a joint statement.
In his speech, Pence urged the audience to support the administration's effort to create the department.
Speaking to a room made up mostly of U.S. troops in uniform, Pence said their "commander in chief is going to continue to work tirelessly toward this goal, and we expect you all to do the same."
"The only thing we can't afford is inaction," he said.