FORT WALTON BEACH — Creating a Space Force as a sixth branch of America's military "could be very exciting for Northwest Florida," says Rep. Matt Gaetz, who represents the area in Congress.
With Eglin Air Force Base already hosting part of the military space mission with the 20th Space Control Squadron, Gaetz said this area is likely to attract some of the federal dollars that would support the Space Force announced earlier this week by Vice President Mike Pence.
Creation of the Space Force ultimately will require congressional action.
"We need to be advocates for the Space Force," Gaetz said. "Space has advanced substantially as a warfighting domain."
The 20th Space Control Squadron, which operates a massive radar array at Eglin, in addition to other space surveillance equipment elsewhere, can find, track and target objects in Earth's orbit. The squadron can track an object the size of a basketball as far as 25,000 miles away.
Gaetz said Friday that creation of the Space Force could also bring more military contractors to Northwest Florida. The area is located between Huntsville, Alabama, and Cape Canaveral, Florida, where much of the current work on space hardware is occurring, he added.
The move toward a Space Force reflects concerns about efforts by U.S. adversaries — particularly Russia and China — to develop weapons "to jam, blind and disable our navigation and communication satellites via electronic attacks from the ground," Pence said in Thursday's announcement.
The U.S. Space Force would be focused on protecting those space assets, Deputy Defense Secretary Patrick M. Shanahan and Air Force Gen. Paul J. Selva, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters after Pence's announcement.
Echoing Pence and bolstering his point that Northwest Florida could benefit from a Space Force, Gaetz pointed to last year's activation of the 96th Cyberspace Test Group at Eglin. The group, the first of its kind in the Air Force, assesses digital security of Air Force offensive and defensive systems.
"Space and cyber are the (warfighting) domains of the future," Gaetz said.
Gaetz acknowledged that establishing a Space Force could require additional tax dollars. But at least initially, he said the money could come from contingency funding routinely included in defense appropriations.
"Money is always a zero-sum game," Gaetz said. "You always have to find it somewhere." With regard to Space Force, "we have no choice" but to fund it."
According to a Department of Defense plan, the Space Force would be assembled much like the U.S. Special Operations Command, which brings together troops from each of America's military services. According to the DoD, 80 percent of "space qualified" military personnel are in the Air Force.
Gaetz said he isn't concerned about Space Force diluting the Air Force's mission. Instead, he said it could encourage Air Force personnel to remain in its space-oriented programs. Currently, the Air Force's space enterprises aren't seen as career paths, he added.
"Too many talented people in the Air Force move away from space," Gaetz said.