Military space needs independent voice, says HASC Chairman Thornberry

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WASHINGTON — The House legislation that spins off portions of the U.S. Air Force into a dedicated space corps may not survive upcoming negotiations with the Senate, which has not endorsed the move. Regardless, there is broad agreement in Congress that military space has not received proper attention from an aviation-focused service, House Armed Services Committee Chairman Mac Thornberry  (R-Texas) told reporters Thursday.

“I think there is absolutely no disagreement among anybody, including the Air Force, that space is not going well,” said Thornberry. “The only question is what is the right answer?”

The Senate’s defense policy bill that has yet to be reconciled with the House version does not call for a space corps but directs the Pentagon to appoint an information-warfare officer to oversee cyber and space.

“Our view is that culturally we have to have some separation from the rest of the Air Force in order to ensure there are enough resources, and ensure there is a war fighting mentality” in the space business, said Thornberry. “It’s a different domain than the Air Force.”

Just like the Air Force grew out of the Army Air Corps, space is moving in a similar direction, he added. “We are at, or past, the point where space has to evolve beyond the air domain into a domain of its own.”

Air Force leaders have argued that a massive reorganization is not the way to tackle these issues. Thornberry agreed they have a point. “I completely acknowledge that organizational changes don’t solve all problems.”

He suggested that a compromise might involve changes short of creating a space corps. The House would insist on drastic reforms. “A lot of what we’re talking about is the acquisition of space systems, how we develop the war fighting techniques and practices in space, and a variety of other things beyond the reorganization,” Thornberry said. “This is broader than just whether we have a space corps or not.”

The space corps legislation was introduced by Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Ala.), chairman of the House Armed Services strategic forces subcommittee. He insists that space is not high enough on the Air Force’s agenda at a time when adversaries are challenging U.S. dominance.

Thornberry said the criticism is valid. “I don’t mean to be too dismal, but I’ve had too many classified briefings about what the Chinese and Russians are doing,” he said. There has to be a sense of urgency, he continued. “We don’t have a lot of ‘evolutionary’ time to sit around and hope we drift in the right direction. We are more dependent on space than anyone, and we are losing key advantages there.”

House and Senate conferees are working to hash out a compromise in the coming weeks, and the goal is to pass the 2018 National Defense Authorization Act by the end of October, said Thornberry. With the Senate on recess next week and the House out the week after, that only leaves a full week on the calendar to wrap up the NDAA.

Thornberry acknowledged the timeline is “ambitious.” The biggest bone of contention will be what top line funding the NDAA will set for the Defense Department. Thornberry said there is still disagreement over whether to push forward with a nearly $700 billion top line as a marker for appropriators even though the amount is much higher than what the administration or the budget committees have proposed.

“We have not had those discussions,” said Thornberry. “We are holding that to the end.”

On the reorganization of military space, a full-throated debate has yet to get underway. “We’ve all been having conversations with the Air Force and the Department of Defense,” he said. “I don’t know where those discussions will lead. But clearly the space issue has gotten everybody’s attention.”

Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson and Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein have fought back against the space corps language since the House bill was passed in July.

Wilson, who serves as space advisor to the secretary of defense, on Thursday discussed a number of efforts aimed at boosting awareness of the role of space in military operations.

“Space is no longer a benign domain,” Wilson said at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

“Our adversaries know how much the U.S. depends on space systems,” she said, “and there are some things we need to do” to protect U.S. and allies’ access and deter aggressors.

Wilson said the Air Force is building a “common operating picture” of what is going on in space, including the location of debris and possible malevolent actions. “We need near real time situational awareness of what is going on.”

The Air Force has stood up a “national space defense center” in Colorado Springs to consolidate the command and control of spacecraft and other systems. “We have to be able to do something if things are going wrong.” New “offensive” systems will be needed to fight back if U.S. assets are attacked, Wilson said. “We need the ability to create effects, defend ourselves and deter actions.”

Wilson said a policy framework is in the works at the National Security Council on rules of engagement in space. “This crosses many departments, it’s not just a Defense Department issue,” she said. “It’s time for America to develop those policies.”

The United States should lead efforts to develop “international norms of behavior for space,” she said. “What is our declaratory policy if another country were to attack one of our satellites?”

Wilson recognized the Air Force could be doing more to mesh space into broader military planning. “Space officers have to be on the floor of the operations center, on the joint staff, all our officers need to become more knowledgeable of space capabilities,” she added, and of how they connect to other military disciplines.