Faced with growing competition and threats from Russia and China, the White House on Thursday said it will create the U.S. Space Force as a sixth, separate military service by 2020.
Vice-President Mike Pence told a Pentagon audience that the plan fulfils President Donald Trump's vow to ensure America's dominance in space — a domain that was once peaceful and uncontested that has now become crowded and adversarial.
"Now the time has come to write the next great chapter in the history of our armed forces, to prepare for the next battlefield where America's best and bravest will be called to deter and defeat a new generation of threats to our people, to our nation," said Pence. "The time has come to establish the United States Space Force."
Trump marked Pence's announcement with a tweet.
Trump has called for a "separate but equal" space force, a complicated and expensive move that requires congressional approval. On Thursday, Pence said the administration will work with Congress on the plan and outline a budget next year.
Defence Secretary Jim Mattis has endorsed steps to reorganize the military's space war-fighting forces and create a new command, but has previously opposed launching an expensive, new service. A new branch of the military would require layers of bureaucracy, military and civilian leaders, uniforms, equipment and an expansive support structure.
The Pentagon proposal delivered to Congress on Thursday lays out plans to consolidate the Pentagon's war-fighting space forces and make organizational changes to boost the acquisition and development of leading edge technologies.
The Pentagon's role in space has been under scrutiny because of a recognition that the United States is increasingly reliant on satellites that are difficult to protect in space. Satellites provide communications, navigation, intelligence and other services vital to the military and the economy.
The U.S. intelligence agencies reported earlier this year that Russia and China are pursuing "non-destructive 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.
Republican Mike Rogers, a member of the House armed services committee, said on Twitter that he was "thrilled" by the announcement.
"We in the House have been warning for years about the threats to our space assets and the unacceptably slow pace to develop more capable space systems. The report is a step in a multi-year process that will help ensure a safer, stronger America," he said.
The United States is a member of the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, which bars the stationing of weapons of mass destruction in space, and only allows for the use of the moon and other celestial bodies for peaceful purposes.
Former astronaut and retired U.S. navy Capt. Mark Kelly on Thursday said a separate military branch devoted to space was redundant and wasteful.
He said while Pence was right about the threats in outer space, the military was already handling them.
"There is a threat out there but it's being handled by the U.S. Air Force today. [It] doesn't make sense to build a whole other level of bureaucracy in an incredibly bureaucratic DoD," Kelly told MSNBC in an interview.
With files from Reuters