Space professionals worry the National Space Council is ceding its defense portfolio.
Who is in charge of U.S. national security policy in space?
Under the Trump administration, it was self-professed space nerd Vice President Mike Pence, who chaired the National Space Council. But, even though Vice President Kamala Harris has held her first space council meeting and chatted with astronauts on the International Space Station, space consistently falls much lower on her robust to-do list.
Space professionals increasingly feel that the White House’s National Space Council is playing less of a role in setting military space policy and that those duties are being handled by the National Security Council, according to six industry executives, four of whom previously served as senior government officials in Democratic and Republican administrations. The move is particularly concerning to several former Pentagon and White House officials who say the move could create barriers and lead to duplicative activities by military and civil space authorities.
“It is not harmonious over there,” said one industry executive who spoke to Defense One on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss internal relationships within the White House. “The National Security [Council] space people are just doing their own thing and seldomly including the [National] Space Council.”
The National Space Council collects input from a broader group of government officials and conducts public meetings, while much of the National Security Council’s work is done by a smaller group behind closed doors.
In recent years, U.S. officials have taken steps to break down bureaucratic barriers of military, intelligence, civil, and commercial activities in space. But former officials and industry executives worry that those efforts to better align space initiatives could all be undone, at a time when the United States is increasingly concerned about China and Russia attacking American satellites.
Officials from the White House and vice president’s office disputed that there is a shift in policy oversight, or that there is any friction between the panels. They noted that the space council and security council work together, and also pointed to the recently announced Biden administration space priorities, which make numerous references to national security.
“The [National Security Council and National Space Council] relationship in the Biden-Harris administration operates in virtually the same exact way it did in the Trump administration. We modeled our relationship on that dynamic because it worked well,” said a White House spokesperson who was not authorized to discuss internal dynamics.
After two decades of dormancy, the Trump administration revived the National Space Council, in part, as a way to harmonize space activities across the Pentagon, intelligence community, NASA, and commercial companies. While the focus of the group was never intended to be solely on national security, the panel played an important role in Trump administration priorities, such as the establishment of the Space Force, the re-establishment of U.S. Space Command and an effort to better protect assets in space from cyber attacks.
“What’s the point of a space council if you’re not dictating national security space policy? The point is to have a whole-of-government approach,” said a second industry executive, who asked for anonymity to discuss internal debates. “If DOD and the intelligence agencies are doing their own thing anyways, then you really just have a National NASA Council.”
The Biden administration kept the council, which is led by the vice president, mostly unchanged from the previous administration, but expanded the membership to represent more agencies, including the Education Department, Energy Department, Department of Agriculture, and the national climate advisor. Several national security officials sit on the panel, including the Joint Chiefs chairman, the director of national intelligence, and the defense secretary.
The space council’s best-known national security achievement in the Trump administration was the establishment of the U.S. Space Force. Though the new branch was ultimately created by Congress, the council played an important role in elevating the issue to the vice president’s office and drafting a space policy directive laying out how the service should be organized. But the panel also oversaw smaller policy changes, including the re-establishment of U.S. Space Command in 2018 and the release of Space Policy Directive 5, which addresses protecting assets in orbit from cyber threats.
Pence relished his role as chair of the National Space Council, and everything related to space in the Trump administration went through him. He administered Gen. John Raymond’s oath of office to become the first chief of space operations in January 2020. The vice president personally announced in December 2020 that two Air Force bases in Florida would be designated as Space Force bases, and that the Space Force members would be called Guardians. In 2019, he planted a tree sapling on the vice president’s property that descended from seeds that orbited the moon 50 years ago. When astronauts were set to launch from American soil for the first time in almost a decade in May 2020, Pence made the trip to Florida to see the launch. When it scrubbed, he made the trip again just a few days later.
Pence’s deep interest in space is part of the reason Trump’s National Space Council operated the way it did, as the hub for all space policy in the White House, according to the second industry official
“The vice president actually cared about it and said, ‘We’re going to do this, everyone has to get in line.’...People in government aren’t getting the same message from [Vice President Kamala] Harris’ office, so they don’t feel compelled to get in line. With no top-down orders coming, everyone is off doing their own thing,” the second industry official said.
A spokeswoman for Harris denied that there is any bad blood between the two panels, pointing specifically to their cooperation in drafting the United States Space Priorities Framework.
“The National Security Council and National Space Council work closely together to accomplish the goals of the Biden-Harris administration,” said Sabrina Singh, Harris’ deputy press secretary. “The Councils coordinate on space matters on a daily basis to create sound, coordinated U.S. space policy and strategy.”
Chirag Parikh, the executive secretary of the National Space Council, also has an impressive background steeped in national security space, including serving as the Obama NSC’s director of space policy, which allows him to coordinate closely with the National Security Council, Singh said.
A former administration official said the space advisor on the National Security Council and the national security space policy director on the National Space Council were “always in coordination with daily phone calls, daily meetings, and one-on-one personal contact with one another” in the Trump administration.
The National Security Council handled “tactical” space priorities that needed attention within the next 30 days, the official said. The National Space Council took a more strategic look at space, looking at the long-term effects over months or years.
“But nothing was done in a vacuum,” the official said. “If you’re not able to weave a thread between what you say today and what you’re going to say four years from now, that could set the nation on a bad course.”