US Space Command launches amid Trump push for military's 'Space Force'

President Trump announced the creation of U.S. Space Command on Thursday, a key step as military officials work to establish a proposed sixth branch of the military known as the Space Force.

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U.S. Air Force Gen. John Raymond will serve as the first head of Space Command (SPACECOM). At launch, Raymond will lead 87 active units handling operations such as missile warning, satellite surveillance, space control and space support, Gen. Joseph Dunford said at a meeting of the National Space Council earlier this month.

“As the newest combatant command, SPACECOM will protect U.S. vital interests in space, the next warfighting domain. I think that’s pretty obvious to everybody, it’s all about space,” Trump said at a press conference in the Rose Garden, adding that Raymond is “highly respected” in military circles.

The establishment of U.S. Space Command is seen as a precursor to a fully-fledged Space Force, which does require Congressional approval. The House Armed Services Committee has introduced an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act proposing a separate space organization in the Defense Department. However, Committee Chairman Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.) suggested the committee might call the new entity the Space Corps, rather than Space Force.

The Senate Armed Services Committee approved the establishment of the Space Force in its defense authorization bill in May. Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Jim Inhofe, (R-Okla)., said in a statement, "We know space is a warfighting domain, so we are setting up the U.S. Space Force with the Air Force. Our strategy will set the Space Force up for success now and in the future by minimizing bureaucracy."

President Trump formally directed the Pentagon to create a sixth military branch in June 2018, arguing that the establishment of a Space Force was crucial to protecting the country’s interests amid pressure from international rivals Russia and China.

Trump reiterated plans to move forward with the creation of Space Force on Thursday.

“The Space Force will organize, train and equip warriors to support SPACECOM’s mission,” Trump added.

The Congressional Budget Office said last May that a Space Force could add $1 billion to $2 billion per year to the Pentagon’s annual budget, as well as up to nearly $5 billion in initial costs.

The initiative has faced some pushback, with some military officials, including Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson, warning that a Space Force would be costly and complicated to launch. In a Sept. 14 memo, Wilson estimated that a Space Force would cost roughly $13 billion over its first five years.

Trump has suggested the Space Force would play a critical role in efforts to revitalize NASA and U.S space exploration efforts. In June 2018, the president called on “rich guys” in the private sector, including SpaceX founder Elon Musk and Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos, to join in on a new space race.

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“You know, I’ve always said that rich guys seem to like rockets,” Trump said at the time. “So all of those rich guys that are dying for our real estate to launch their rockets, we won’t charge you too much, just go ahead. If you beat us to Mars, we’ll be very happy and you’ll be even more famous.”

This story has been updated.