Thornberry: ’We are not going to let up’ on military space reorganization

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"We have given the Air Force an opportunity to show a greater commitment in space," Thornberry said.

WASHINGTON — Despite objections from the Trump administration, the House is not ready to compromise on language in its version of the annual defense policy creating a U.S. Space Command.

“I support what we have in the House bill,” House Armed Services Committee Chairman Rep. Mac Thornberry said Wednesday during a meeting with reporters on Capitol Hill.

The House version of the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2019 directs the Pentagon to form a U.S. Space Command as a subunit of U.S. Strategic Command. The Senate is still working through the NDAA and a vote is expected this week. So far it’s not clear whether the Space Command language appears anywhere in the Senate version of the NDAA.

Thornberry said he has “no clue” about what provisions the Senate has in its bill with regard to space reorganization. Assuming the Senate votes this week, a House-Senate conference would hash out differences over the coming month.

“My goal to complete conference by the end of July,” he said.

Thornberry insisted that both chambers want legislation that strengthens the U.S. military space posture. The House and Senate are “not going to let up in our push to do better in space.”

The White House has argued that it is premature to create a U.S. Space Command before the Defense Department completes a study on whether the military should have a separate Space Corps. “The Department currently is conducting a review of its space organizational and management structure as required by section 1601 of the FY 2018 NDAA,” the White House said in a statement. “Once complete, the administration will review these findings and deliver the required report and consult with Congress.”

President Trump has put military space reorganization under a brighter spotlight as he has repeatedly expressed support for a separate Space Force.

“Last year out of a lot of frustration and a commitment to do better in space, we set up a separate Space Corps,” Thornberry noted. “That is not the way it came out in conference. And we have given the Air Force an opportunity to show a greater commitment in space.”

Having a military command dedicated to space has been a longtime goal of the HASC Strategic Forces subcommittee leaders Rep. Mike Rogers and Rep. Jim Cooper. “We used to have a Space Command,” Thornberry said. “Cooper and Rogers felt that was an important thing to go back to. We’ll see what the Senate comes out with.”

The committee feels strongly that the U.S. military has to be better prepared and equipped to dominate in space, Thornberry said. “As we get all these briefings about what adversaries are doing, our dependence on space, it’s clear that we have to do better,” he added. “Organizational changes don’t fix all the problems. But on the other hand they can sometimes help make sure space gets the kind of priority it should have, like cyber, as a domain of warfare.”

Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson in public appearances and congressional hearings has laid out the service’s plan to shore up the service’s space capabilities and invest in next-generation technology. Thornberry said he is aware of ongoing efforts, but sees them as only the beginning. “The Air Force says, ‘look what all we’ve done” and we say ‘look how much you have to do,’” he said. “Somewhere in between is where we sort through these things.”

The establishment of a “subordinate unified command for space” under U.S. Strategic Command was inserted into last year’s NDAA but was removed in 11th hour negotiations. The FY-19 NDAA language creating U.S. Space Command within Strategic Command follows the same model as U.S. Cyber Command.

A sub-unified command would mark an initial step toward bringing back a unified U.S. Space Command as it existed between 1985 and 2002.