NATIONAL HARBOR, Maryland -- The U.S. military needs to move quickly to stand up U.S. Space Force as a separate military branch, Defense Secretary Mark Esper said Wednesday.
"My personal view is that the first shots of the future likely will be either in the cyber domain or the space domain," he said in an address to the Air Force Association's 2019 Air Space & Cyber Conference here. "The next big fight might very well start in space."
Three weeks ago, President Donald Trump and the Pentagon formally set up U.S. Space Command under Air Force Gen. John Raymond as the newest combatant command to "ensure that our space capabilities are integrated," Esper said.
But that’s not enough to meet the emerging threats in space from China and Russia, he said.
"We must take the leap ahead and create an independent Space Force as our newest armed service," Esper said to applause from an audience of airmen.
Democrats in Congress have taken a dim view of creating a new military branch and, should Trump lose in 2020, the Space Force initiative is likely to be shelved.
However, Esper again stressed that "space and cyber have now emerged as new domains" requiring an innovative response that could be provided by Space Force.
During his speech and a question-and-answer session afterward, he did not address the major crisis now facing the U.S. regarding whether to launch a retaliatory strike against Iran following attacks last week against the huge Saudi Arabian oil facility at Abqaiq and the Khurais oil field.
Iran has denied involvement in the attacks, allegedly carried out with a drone swarm and cruise missiles. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was in Saudi Arabia on Wednesday to discuss the next steps.
Over the weekend, Esper said via Twitter that he had discussed the attacks with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, and he has been at White House meetings this week on Iran and its threats that a retaliatory strike could trigger a regional war.
The closest he came to addressing the issue was in reaffirming the Defense Department's commitment under the National Defense Strategy to pivot away from the "low-intensity" conflicts of the Mideast to dealing with great power competition from Russia and China.
In his speech, Esper stuck to themes he has pressed before: Russia is the greatest near-term threat while China poses "an even greater long-term challenge."
He also said the Pentagon must take advantage of the highest budgets it has ever received -- $716 billion last year and a proposed $738 billion for fiscal 2020 -- to focus on major capital programs such as the new Intercontinental Ballistic Missile and the B-21 Raider bomber, while weeding out older so-called "legacy systems."
"If we do not capitalize at this moment, we will lose it," Esper said.
-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.