"I'm hereby directing the Department of Defense and Pentagon to immediately begin the process necessary to establish a space force as the sixth branch of the armed forces. ... We are going to have the Air Force and we are going to have the Space Force -- separate but equal." -- President Donald J. Trump
President Trump made headlines last month when he ordered the U.S. Department of Defense to create a "Space Force," a new branch of the military in addition to the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard. But while the idea came as a surprise to many pundits, and became the butt of no small amount of jokes on late night talk shows, it's actually not as wacky as it may sound.
It turns out that a United States "Space Force" has been under consideration for some time already, and was almost implemented as recently as last year.
What kind of space force do we have today, and what might it become?
Currently, U.S. Air Force Space Command (AFSPC) oversees U.S. defense policy in space, managing launch vehicles from SpaceX and United Launch Alliance, putting communications and spy satellites in orbit, and scanning the skies for incoming missiles and asteroids (and, once a year, Santa Claus). AFSPC also monitors space debris that may fall back to Earth or damage rockets leaving Earth -- and as if that weren't enough, AFSPC also manages cyberspace operations for the military.
AFSPC's 35,000 civilian and military employees constitute less than 8% of the Air Force's workforce of more than 458,000. As such, it's much smaller -- relative to its parent organization, the USAF -- than the Marine Corps (with 184,000 active duty Marines) relative to the U.S. Navy (with 325,000 active duty sailors).
This is both an argument against there being a need to carve out a separate Space Force within the AFSPC and a hint at how large the AFSPC might one day become if it does get carved out.
What a space force might look like
"Carving out," by the way, was Congress's original plan for the Space Force. In its version of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA, i.e. the defense budget) passed in November of last year, the House of Representatives called for expanding the AFSPC into a new, sixth branch of the U.S. military. Dubbed "the Space Corps," it would have its own budget and be headed by its own chief of staff (sitting on the Joint Chiefs of Staff) but be subordinate to the Department of the Air Force, much like the Marine Corps is a separate branch of the military subordinate to the Department of the Navy.
Ultimately, this plan was scuttled in "conference" between the House and Senate, with the NDAA ultimately passing without a call to create a Space Force/Space Corps, and instead directing the Pentagon to study whether the creation of such a sixth military branch is advisable. At least that was the plan back then. With President Trump's announcement, however, it appears the administration is throwing its full weight behind a plan to not just create a Space Force within the Air Force -- but a branch entirely separated from the Air Force.
Leaving aside the issue of whether a new Space Force will operate within the Air Force or outside of it, why does the president think it necessary to carve out the Space Force at all?
As the president explained, America has a "vital interest in space," but we're presently letting "China and Russia and other countries [lead]" in this field. Among other advances, both Russia and China -- America's closest near-peer rivals in space -- have tested anti-satellite (ASAT) missiles in recent years, with China actually shooting down one of its own satellites in a demonstration in 2007 and announcing the development of a mobile, ship-launched ASAT weapon in 2016. Earlier this year, reports began surfacing of ground-based laser weapons under development by both countries capable of shooting down U.S. spy satellites.
Advocates of a space force have relied heavily on news clippings such as these to bolster their argument that the U.S. needs to invest more in space weapons, both defensive and offensive, to offset Russian and Chinese advances. In addition to ASATs, new NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine notes that less destructive "jamming, spoofing, hacking, [and] dazzling" attacks have the potential to disrupt GPS and other military satellites. And if "we lose the GPS signal ... banking shuts down. Three days later, there's no milk in the grocery store."
Such threats to America's satellites, argues Bridenstine, have the potential to create "civil unrest, the likes of which we've never seen before."
President Trump wants to address this vulnerability immediately. Not content with having just a "presence in space," he says, "we must have American dominance in space." To accomplish that, he thinks it's essential that the military branch responsible for space dominance be focused exclusively on space, and not distracted by other missions or other funding priorities.
What does it mean to investors?
Long story short, in one single speech President Trump appears to have short-circuited a steady, methodical, and probably long-drawn-out discussion of the matter within the Pentagon, and declared his administration's intent to form a Space Force tout de suite. So what does this mean for investors?
Most likely, more money for space projects. In last year's NDAA, Congress instructed the Air Force to "streamline acquisition" of space military hardware within its budget, though the Air Force is known to have other priorities that it prefers to spend its money on. A separate Space Force would turbocharge this mandate. With space as its sole mission, funds allocated to the Space Force would almost certainly be spent specifically on space equipment -- anti-satellite missiles, anti-anti-satellite missiles, satellites, and launch vehicles. There'd be no risk of funds being siphoned off to pay for pet projects elsewhere below the atmosphere.
Indeed, a separate Space Force might even increase spending on space hardware -- for example, by expanding the fleet of X-37B drone space shuttles, or adopting DARPA's XS-1 space plane project as a program of record to enhance America's dominance in space. Such a prospect could prove a boon for Boeing, which built the X-37 and is building the XS-1, but has struggled to win marquee Air Force projects like the F-35 stealth fighter and B-21 stealth bomber, losing out to Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman, respectively, in recent years.
Conceivably, Boeing stock could profit nicely from an independent Space Force, with an independent space budget to play with and less competition for those space dollars. Granted, so long as the Space Force remains just a fraction of the size of the Air Force, the gains for Boeing and other space contractors will be limited -- but the faster the Space Force is formed, and the bigger the Space Force grows over time, the better the prospects for space investors as a whole.