US President Donald Trump signed a memorandum on Tuesday, authorising the Department of Defense to create a Space Command, a new organisational structure within the Pentagon that will have overall control of military space operations.
The command will also be tasked with accelerating technical advances and finding more effective ways to defend US assets in space, including the vast constellations of satellites that US forces rely on for navigation, communications and surveillance.
Trump’s order is separate from his oft-stated goal of creating a “Space Force” as an independent armed service branch, but it’s considered a step in that direction. Critics of a Space Force have said it is misguided and money should instead be spent on initiatives and programmes on earth, including education and improving access to healthcare.
Tuesday’s move will launch a long and complicated process, requiring the Defense Department to pull together various space units and agencies from across the military services into a more coordinated, independent organisation, the Associated Press reported earlier on Tuesday, citing two unnamed US officials.
The US Air Force’s existing Space Command would be a key component of the new joint entity, raising space to the same status as US Cyber Command.
The move will recreate a US Space Command, which existed from 1985 to 2002. It was disbanded in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks so US Northern Command could be established.
The Space Command’s functions were absorbed by US Strategic Command, and the Air Force retained its lead role in space through Air Force Space Command.
Joe Buccino, spokesman for Deputy Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan, said that establishing Space Command is “a critical step in accelerating our space capabilities and posture to defend our vital national interests and deter our adversaries. This combatant command will lead space operations and develop space warfighting doctrine, tactics, and techniques.”
He added that the Pentagon will continue to develop a legislative proposal to meet the president’s vision for a space force.
The first steps next year will be to nominate top leaders for Space Command, including a four-star general and a deputy. The command would likely at least begin to take form in Colorado, where the current Joint Functional Component Command for Space is already located. But there has been no final decision on a location for the new command.
The new command could cost as much as $800m over the next five years. Funding will be included in the budget for fiscal year 2020, which will be unveiled in February.
The military has been trying for decades to reorganise and accelerate technological advances in space. Some blame the Air Force for underinvesting in space because it prefers spending on warplanes.
The military’s role in space has been under scrutiny because the United States is increasingly reliant on orbiting satellites that are difficult to protect.
US intelligence agencies reported earlier this year that Russia and China were pursuing “nondestructive and destructive” anti-satellite weapons for use during a future war. And there are growing worries about cyberattacks that could target satellite technology, potentially leaving troops in combat without electronic communications or navigation abilities.
Al Jazeera and news agencies