Top Pentagon officials said this week that they are aiming to make President Trump’s Space Force service “as small as possible” and are resisting the White House’s proposal to establish a fully independent sixth branch of the armed forces.

Speaking to reporters Tuesday, acting Defense Secretary Patrick M. Shanahan said he wants to set up the Space Force — which would be responsible for countering space-based threats to the U.S. and coordinating all space-related military activities — under the umbrella of the Air Force.

“And so when we talk about the Space Force, and I think about the discussions we’re going to have over the next, you know, five, six months, it’s going to be small — as small as possible footprint,” said Mr. Shanahan, who took over as Pentagon chief on Jan. 1 after the abrupt resignation of Secretary James Mattis, who had a series of policy disputes with Mr. Trump.

“That’s why it’s recommended [that the Space Force] sits underneath the Air Force,” Mr. Shanahan said.

The White House has called for the Space Force to eventually be an independent branch on an equal footing with the Army, Navy and other services.

Mr. Trump, Vice President Mike Pence and other top administration officials have made the Space Force a key part of their broad 21st-century military strategy. They say the U.S. risks falling behind rivals such as Russia and China in the space arms race.

But officials inside the Defense Department remain skeptical. On Capitol Hill, leaders in the House — now controlled by Democrats — also have expressed opposition to the idea of a full-scale Space Force. They argue that the proposition is too expensive and that the military is able to defend the U.S. against space-based threats without creating a new military branch.

House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith, Washington Democrat, agrees that the military must put a greater emphasis on space, but he opposes Mr. Trump’s vision of a Space Force.

“Creating a whole new bureaucracy, a whole new branch of the service to address it, I don’t think it’s the best way to do it. There is bipartisan consensus on that,” he said late last year.

Military space operations are currently housed across the existing service branches, most notably with the U.S. Space Command, which is a part of the Air Force. Mr. Shanahan’s comments suggest that the Pentagon is aiming to preserve the Air Force’s role in space operations by putting the Space Force entirely under its control.

Aware of the sentiment on Capitol Hill, Mr. Shanahan said discussions underway include setting up a Space Force with as little overhead and new spending as possible.

He said lawmakers are concerned about creating another bureaucracy. “How do we not generate unnecessary cost?” he said.

Mr. Mattis expressed skepticism about the idea, but an August report by the Defense Department seemed to suggest that the Pentagon was prepared to set up the Space Force as a separate branch just as the president proposed.

“Like the other military branches, the Space Force will organize, train and equip forces to protect national security interests in the physical domain of space,” the Pentagon said at the time.

According to Mr. Shanahan’s description, the Space Force ultimately could be on footing similar to the Marine Corps, which is technically a part of the Navy but in many ways operates as its own service.

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