Space Corps proposal becoming flashpoint in DoD budget negotiations

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“When I see arguments that we are actually going to set back efforts to respond to adversary space threats, well, as we say in Alabama, I’m pissed” Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Ala.) said Thursday ahead of a vote to add his controversial Space Corps provision to the NDAA.

WASHINGTON – In the past three months alone, Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson and Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein have found themselves before the Senate Appropriations Committee, House Armed Services Committee, and Senate Armed Services Committee.

It’s an unusually busy congressional appearance schedule that reflects budget season in the nation’s capital: no one wants to markup the Air Force budget without talking to the leaders of the Air Force. And Wilson and Goldfein have used every opportunity to reiterate their belief that space operations should stay squarely within the purview of the Air Force.

But Wednesday’s hearing before the Senate Appropriations defense subcommittee may have taken on new urgency for the service leaders.

The day before, the House Armed Services strategic forces subcommittee, led by Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Ala.) and Rep. Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.), unveiled a legislative provision to separate space from other Air Force operations by setting up a “Space Corps” similar to the relationship the Marine Corps has in the Navy.

Rogers and Cooper want it to happen fast. If the provision makes it into law, the Air Force would be required to set up the new corps by Jan. 1, 2019. The commanding general would get a seat on the Joint Chiefs of Staff — the Pentagon’s military leadership — and report directly to Wilson.

Speaking to reporters Wednesday, the service secretary and top general reiterated their belief that now is not the time to focus on a Space Corps.

“If you’re saying the word ‘separate’ and ‘space’ in the same sentence, I would offer you’re moving us in the wrong direction,” Goldfein said. “Every mission that we perform in the United States military is dependent on space. Now’s not the time to build seams and segregate and separate, now’s the time to further integrate.”

Wilson agreed, arguing that at a time of sequestration and budget cuts, a reorganization is going to do more harm than good.

“The Pentagon is complicated enough,” she said. “We’re trying to simplify. This will make it more complex, add more boxes to the organization chart, and cost more money… I don’t need another chief of staff and another six deputy chiefs of staff. We need to simplify, not make it more complicated.”

U.S. Rep. Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.) Credit: CSPAN video capture
U.S. Rep. Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.) Credit: CSPAN video capture

“As we say in Alabama, I’m pissed.”

The idea of a “Space Corps” within the Air Force, or a completely separate “Space Force,” has been floating around for a while. Advocates say it’s a way to focus proper attention on space operations, and protect the space budget from repeated cuts that have seen money transferred into air operations — often warfighting missions in the Middle East. Critics argue separation will be detrimental, and that in an era where space is becoming increasingly more integrated into everyday life, now’s not the time to stick it into its own silo.

But the idea of a Space Corps received renewed attention in April during the Space Symposium in Colorado Springs, Colorado, when Rogers, chairman of the strategic forces subcommittee, said he would push for setting up a completely new military branch focused on space.

“I have to say I’ve been shocked by the response by the Air Force leadership. Did they miss where the Chinese and the Russians have already reorganized their space operations?” said Rep. Mike Rogers

Thursday morning the subcommittee met to markup its portion of the National Defense Authorization Act, and Rogers opened with a statement saying he “had no illusions [Air Force leaders] were going to embrace our reforms.”

“This is an issue the subcommittee has studied for months and I can’t even tell you how many meetings with space experts and leaders Jim [Cooper] and I have had on this subject,” he said. “We both have come to the same conclusion – that the Department can’t fix itself on this; Congress has to step in.”

Rogers then sharply criticized Wilson’s and Golfein’s response to the proposal.

“When I see arguments that we are actually going to set back efforts to respond to adversary space threats, well, as we say in Alabama, I’m pissed,” Rogers said. “We’re not easily provoked. But, since we’ve rolled out our mark with these reforms to the national security space enterprise, I have to say I’ve been shocked by the response by the Air Force leadership. Did they miss where the Chinese and the Russians have already reorganized their space operations? The Chinese literally have a space force today.”

Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson and Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein prepare to testify before the Senate Armed Services Committee June 6 in Washington. Credit: U.S. Air Force photo/Scott M. Ash
Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson and Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein prepare to testify before the Senate Armed Services Committee June 6 in Washington. Credit: U.S. Air Force photo/Scott M. Ash

Congressional support

Other members of the House Armed Services Committee have also expressed support for major changes as well.

Rep. Doug Lamborn — a Republican whose Colorado district includes the headquarters of Air Force Space Command at Peterson Air Force Base — said other committee members share Rogers’ “sense of urgency to do anything but business as usual.”

“The Air Force doesn’t have enough space personnel, and the space personnel they do have, unfortunately, have the lowest promotion rates in the Air Force. Not enough people, who don’t get promoted enough, and who are also way under-represented in Air Force leadership,” Lamborn said, speaking at a June 16 event on the space budget hosted by Jacques & Associates’ FiscalTrak and the Air Force Association’s Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies.

Lamborn applauded the Air Force’s request for a $1.45 billion increase in funding for space over 2017’s levels, but questioned its adequacy.

“Stepping back and looking at the bigger budget picture, you have to ask, ‘Is this good enough?’” he said. “Let’s face it: they have so many other things to buy, including new fighters, new tankers, new bombers, and of course new nuclear weapons, all of which are things we absolutely need to buy, but all of which are expensive.”

“We are simply not well organized to maintain our leadership and competitive advantage in space,” Lamborn continued. “Gaining consensus on the solution, however, is obviously a lot more complicated. I think part of the lack of consensus stems from various opinions regarding how urgent the problem is. From there come the various opinions about how much reform is needed. All I know is we can’t afford to rearrange the deck chairs, or simply do another study.”

Rogers and Cooper’s proposal has a long way to go. It won expected approval by the subcommittee Thursday, and now must clear the full House Armed Services Committee before going  to the floor of the full House sometime after the Fourth of July holiday. After all that, the Senate would need to agree as well.

The Senate is so far remaining mum on whether it would consider a similar proposal. The Senate Armed Services Committee, led by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.), isn’t scheduled to hold its own markup until June 28.

A committee staffer told SpaceNews that the committee is declining to comment on the Space Corps proposal until after the markup.

Despite bipartisan agreement on increasing funding for the military, many members of Congress have called President Donald Trump’s 2018 budget proposal dead on arrival, setting up a potentially long and contentious budget season as both legislative chambers and the White House try to reach some sort of agreement.

A continuing resolution — which funds the government at the current year’s budget levels — would potentially hurt Rogers and Cooper’s proposal since it wouldn’t include the additional money that would very likely be needed to establish a new Space Corps.

U.S. Rep. Doug Lamborn (R-Colo.) Credit: Michael Moser/SpaceNews
U.S. Rep. Doug Lamborn (R-Colo.) Credit: Michael Moser/SpaceNews

Seeking consensus

For its part, the Air Force is doing its own rearranging on space. The service is setting up a new deputy chief of staff for space operations on the Air Staff. Wilson officially announced the new three-star position — formally known as the A-11 — on June 16, designed to act as an advocate for space within the Pentagon and aid in organizing and equipping space forces. The move “integrates, elevates, and normalizes space operations,” Wilson said.

The Pentagon’s 2018 budget proposal also seeks a 20-percent increase in funding for space operations. Speaking to reporters June 21, Wilson said that’s the direction the service wants to go.

I think a most important question is how do we fund what we need [and] change to a warfighting ethos,” she said, adding that shuffling “org chart boxes” for a Space Corps is not the right solution at this time.

“To get us anchored into a discussion about the organizational chart while we’re right now trying to move towards improving lethality and warfighting going forward, quite frankly would slow us down,” Gen. David Goldfein said.

Goldfein said moving space out of the Air Force would cause too much disruption at a time when the service is trying to refocus on space as a warfighting domain, not a benign environment.

I really do appreciate Congress’ interest in space because we’re passionate about it,” the general said. “But right now, as we’re making this transition, to get us anchored into a discussion about the organizational chart while we’re right now trying to move towards improving lethality and warfighting going forward, quite frankly would slow us down. I’ve got real concerns about getting in that kind of a dialogue right now.”

But on Thursday, Rogers delivered what he described as a “friendly warning,” noting that the Rumsfeld Commission in 2001, the Allard Commission in 2008, and “a dozen other reports and studies over the past 15 years” have all concluded that “the current organization isn’t working.”

“The Air Force leadership would have us trust them again to get it right. They just need a few more years to rearrange the deck chairs,” Rogers said. “This is the same Air Force that got us into the situation where the Russians and the Chinese are near-peers to us in space. We will not allow the status quo to continue.”

The chairman said we would rather work with Wilson and Goldfein to reform the space enterprise, but that “at the end of the day, whether or not they’re in the room when decisions are made is their choice.”

“They better shape up or they’ll figure out who is in charge here,” he said. “I’ll let you in on a secret: it’s the branch of our government that controls the purse strings.”