President Trump has signed off on a directive that would put the Air Force in charge of the Space Force, pending congressional approval.

Trump signed Space Policy Directive-4 (SPD-4) Feb. 19, marking the first official administration notice outlining the president’s coveted Space Force. The scope, however, is currently more limited than the sixth military branch the White House originally described in August 2018, where it would exist co-equally with the Air Force.

Falcon Heavy (SpaceX photo)

Trump was flanked by officials including Vice President Mike Pence, Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan, Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson, Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Air Force Gen. Paul Selva, and National Space Council Executive Secretary Scott Pace during the Tuesday signing at the White House.

Defense Daily reported in December that the Defense Department was currently crafting legislation to fit Space Force under the Air Force, similarly to how the Marine Corps fits under the Navy (Defense Daily, Dec. 20, 2019). This legislative proposal is expected to be released along with the Pentagon’s fiscal year 2020 (FY ’20) budget request.

A predecisional version of SPD-4 viewed by Defense Daily notes that the Space Force is “to be initially organized” within the Air Force, to be led by a civilian undersecretary of the Air Force as well as a four-star-level Chief of Staff of the Space Force who would be a member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and report to the Air Force Secretary. A future “Department of the Space Force” is still in the cards as a separate service, the draft directive indicated.

The current U.S. Space Force proposal would not include national intelligence offices such as the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO), but the SPD-4 draft requests that the defense secretary and director of national intelligence submit a report within 180 days of how they plan to “increase unity of effort and the effectiveness of space operations,” including legislative proposals as necessary.

A senior administration official speaking on background Tuesday reiterated that the current directive is “a step toward a future separate military department for space” and that the administration has not “abandoned that goal” of a sixth military branch for space.

“What we’re trying not to do is do it all at once,” the administration official said.

The cost of standing up a Space Force – whether under the Air Force or separately – remains unclear. Estimates have ranged from hundreds of millions of dollars to up to $13 billion, and are all dependent on how the new branch is organized. The Pentagon is expected to release funding numbers as part of the fiscal year 2020 Presidential Budget request, currently expected to be released March 12, per DOD officials.

The administration official said the amount of money for headquarters functions is expected to be “relatively small … under $100 million.” The official noted that much of the existing space infrastructure would simply move over to the Space Force without requiring additional funds.

However, “if we take more aggressive actions for building up resiliency of our systems, creating counter-space capabilities to counter adversary threats, those things will cost more money,” the official said.

The Trump administration is still finalizing the budget estimates, but expects the full request to be “well under the $13 billion and in line with the Acting Secretary Shanahan’s previous remarks about low single-digit billions,” a second administration official said.

The Air Force issued a statement Tuesday afternoon noting “The President’s bold action guarantees American dominance in space, now and in the future.”

“If enacted, it will be our responsibility to deter and defeat threats in space through the U.S. Space Force, which will organize, train, and equip military space forces,” the service said in an emailed statement. “It will be our obligation to ensure unfettered access to, and freedom to operate in space, and to provide vital capabilities to joint and coalition forces.”

Congress must still approve the White House’s planned Space Force, and lawmakers have to date remained mixed on the prospect of standing up a Space Force. House Armed Services Subcommittee on Strategic Forces Ranking Member Mike Turner (R-Ohio) voiced his support for keeping space capabilities “under the Air Force’s domain” in a Tuesday press statement.

“I look forward to working with my counterparts … to ensure that the President’s proposal satisfies our space needs, is cost effective, and results in increased capabilities,” he said.

Sen. Deb Fischer (R-Neb.), who chairs the Senate Armed Services Committee’s Strategic Forces subcommittee, told Defense Daily Feb. 13 that she has been speaking with senior Pentagon and Air Force leadership to gain more insight into the Space Force directive, but said she continues to seek more information before making a full assessment.

SASC Chair Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.) told reporters at a Feb. 12 breakfast event on Capitol Hill that the committee has planned a hearing dedicated to the Space Force, although a specific date has not yet been set.