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Debate over separate space force in spotlight at Space Symposium

Author: Tom Roeder, The Gazette - April 16, 2018 - Updated: April 16, 2018

Gary Talbott rolls out the red carpet at the Sierra Nevada Corporation’s Dream Chaser pavilion outside the 34th Space Symposium at the Broadmoor Hotel on April 15. (Photo by Nadav Soroker, The Gazette)

COLORADO SPRINGS — President Donald Trump created a buzz before this week’s Space Symposium by lending his support to the idea of a separate military branch for satellite troops.

But as thousands of experts in all things in orbit make their way to Colorado Springs for the nation’s largest space gathering, some early supporters of that idea, including Colorado Springs Republican U.S. Rep. Doug Lamborn, are beginning to slowly back away from a real-life version of the fictional Star Fleet.

“Things are still being studied intensively,” said Lamborn, who last year joined Alabama Republican Rep. Mike Rogers to champion “space corps” – think of Marines in orbit.

While Congress stopped short of breaking off satellites from the rest of the military in 2017, the idea remains in play.

The Space Symposium, in its 34th year in Colorado Springs, is expected to draw more than 14,000 participants including some who could sway the space force plan one way or another. That smaller group includes Vice President Mike Pence who will deliver what’s billed as a policy speech to the symposium on Monday.

Many insiders will be looking to see how closely Pence follows his boss.

Last month, Trump told a group of Marines in California that he’s considering the plan.

“Space is a warfighting domain just like the land, air and sea,” Trump told the Marines. “We may even have a space force … we have the Air Force, maybe we’ll have a space force.”

But even having the president’s approval won’t make building a new armed service easy.

The Pentagon went to war in 2017 to fight back against the idea of a space corps, and the idea doesn’t look like it has gained fans since then.

At a breakfast gathering last month, Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson touted the Air Force as the service that is the proper home to satellite troops

“From the launch pad to your iPad the United States Air Force is there,” she said. “We are only getting better and faster.”

Wilson’s Air Force is the last new military service the United States has seen. Created in 1947, the Air Force broke from the Army at the dawn of the atomic age.

Critics have said the Air Force is too focused on planes and spends too little effort fighting for satellites in Congress and at the Pentagon.

Last year, Congress ordered extensive studies of how space is being managed. The lawmakers also required the military to come up with a plan for defending military satellites by June 1.

Leaders worry America’s more than three decades of dominance in space could be coming to an end. Now, Russia, China, Iran and North Korea are thought to be pursuing anti-satellite programs.

Enemies are targeting satellites because they are the key to America’s military might. Without satellites, American troops on the ground would be lost, lacking communications, navigation, intelligence and targeting data that’s key to modern warfare.

Still, some are asking why America is rushing toward the uncertain future with a separate space force.

“We need to do some very deliberate planning to look at a separate space force and determine what is the desired end state and how we get there,” said Colorado National Guard boss Maj. Gen. Mike Loh.

Lamborn said he’d be happy with a new approach to space that doesn’t divorce satellites from the Air Force.

“There’s more than one way to skin a cat,” Lamborn said. “If we can find other approaches that assert the priority of space and reassert the budgeting for space I’m happy.”

The Colorado Springs Chamber of Commerce is waiting for the space force wheel to stop spinning. Rich Burchfield, who heads military affairs for the chamber, said he wants a firm picture of what would be best for the Air Force and what would be best for the Pikes Peak region before he starts taking sides.

The good news is he’ll probably get his answers next week. The Space Symposium on Tuesday will include speeches by Air Force Space Command boss Gen. Jay Raymond and Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein.

Burchfield said he expects them to address some of the space force concerns and give a road map for what’s next for military space programs.

“It gives us an opportunity to get a pulse of the vibe from the command,” Burchfield said. “We have the boss right here, and we’re going to get to hear it firsthand.”

Tom Roeder, The Gazette

Tom Roeder, The Gazette