Space Corps proposal has murkier path forward in the Senate

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WASHINGTON — The House of Representatives on Friday approved a controversial proposal to establish a separate Space Corps within the U.S. Air Force.

The Space Corps provision was approved as part the National Defense Authorization Act of 2018 (H.R. 2810), a sprawling bill that sets spending levels and policy prescriptions for the entire Department of Defense.

The idea of setting up a new branch of the military has a less assured path through the Senate, where the idea has not yet garnered the support it did in the House.

Indeed, the Senate Armed Services Committee’s markup of their version of the NDAA doesn’t include the Space Corps proposal, instead focusing on bolstering space operations along different lines.

The Senate’s current version of the NDAA would establish a new Chief Information Warfare Officer within the Defense Department that would oversee “cybersecurity and cyber warfare, space and space launch systems, electronic warfare, and the electromagnetic spectrum,” according to a summary of the markup.

The move would split up the current DoD Chief Information Officer job into two separate positions: the new CIWO and a Chief Management Officer who would conduct the current CIO’s business and IT oversight jobs.

The Senate language would also extend the term of office for the leader of Air Force Space Command, requiring them to serve six years instead of the current two to four years that’s been common for the position. Current commander Gen. Jay Raymond took over in October. His predecessor, Gen. John Hyten, lead Space Command for two years before taking the helm of Strategic Command last fall.

A spokesperson for the Senate Armed Services Committee told SpaceNews that senators would not yet comment on the House version of the NDAA, but said that the existence of a Space Corps in the House version and lack of it in the Senate version was a “discrepancy” that would need to be addressed during the joint conference between both chambers to reconcile different versions of the legislation.

That means the chances of the Space Corps proposal becoming law are uncertain at the moment, experts said,  and could hinge on whether key Space Corps proponents  — Alabama Republican Rep. Mike Rogers or Tennessee Democrat Rep. Jim Cooper —are part of the final NDAA negotiations.

“I don’t think the odds are very good of it getting added to the Senate version,” said Brian Weeden of the Secure World Foundation. “I think the key issue is going to be what happens in the conference bill. There you have a much smaller group of senators and representatives trying to hash out how to combine these different ideas into a single bill. If none of the Space Corps advocates are part of that group, I think it’s unlikely it will survive. Particularly given that nearly all of the senior Air Force and Pentagon leadership has come out against it.”

Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson and Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein have been against the proposal since Rogers and Cooper first submitted it. They’ve been joined in the past few weeks by Defense Secretary James Mattis and the Trump administration, who have also come out against the proposal.

This past week, the White House issued a statement addressing the House NDAA, saying that while space organization needs addressing, “the creation of a separate Space Corps, however, is premature at this time.”

The Senate proposal echoed the White House’s call for reorganizing space operations, saying that “decision-making is fragmented across more than 60 offices in DoD. Funding for space programs is also near 30-year lows, while the threats and our reliance on space are at their highest and growing.”

Speaking to reporters July 14 following passage of the NDAA, House Armed Services Committee Chairman Mac Thornberry (R-Texas) said there would be ongoing discussions about the future of milspace.

“We will continue to work on this issue,” he said. “I’m going to have a number of committee events in the coming weeks — while we’re waiting to go to conference with the Senate — to look at space issues, at different proposals.”

Thornberry said that sometimes radical changes in the Pentagon are needed, and pointed to the creation of the Air Force as one such event.

“I know that there are those in the Department of Defense who may not think it’s the best idea in the world, but I’ll just say, if you look back in history, it is incumbent upon Congress to make changes in the Pentagon that they cannot make for themselves,” the chairman said. “We will absolutely continue to talk with each other, visit with the Senate, Pentagon, and the administration, but we will also keep pushing to help ensure we’re prepared for the future.”

The widespread agreement from Congress, the White House, and the military that the current space structure isn’t working likely means there will be some sort of movement in legislation this year, even if it’s not a Space Corps, said Todd Harrison, with the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

“We are likely to see some sort of action in space reorganization in this year’s NDAA, but the realm of possibilities is enormous,” Harrison said, adding that the Senate version is “trying to address a different set of problems than what the House is doing.”

“There’s a lot of room between the House and Senate versions,” he continued. “I think likely what we’re going to see out of conference committee is some sort of interim solution, an interim reorganization with an eye towards doing more in the future.”

Both Weeden and Harrison agreed there’s a good chance that one result of the joint conference could be a study to further look at reorganizing space — ranging from the Space Corps proposal to the Air Force’s current efforts to set up a new space officer on the Air Staff.

“I think that’s the solution that most, including the White House and Secretary Mattis, could live with,” Weeden said.