Air Force preparing for space reorganization as Senate advances NDAA

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Air Force officials see growing support for space on Capitol Hill and DoD despite ongoing leadership changes.

LOS ANGELES — The Senate on Thursday passed its version of the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2020 by a vote of 86-8. The bill authorizes the establishment of a U.S. Space Force under the Air Force as a new military service.

The Senate approved a space organization that is somewhat different than what was passed by the House Armed Services Committee, which proposed a Space Corps. The full House will take up the NDAA in July. Both chambers will have to hammer out a compromise on final NDAA language before a new space service is enacted.

Shawn Barnes, deputy principal assistant to the secretary of the Air Force for space, said Air Force is preparing to start the reorganization as soon as the NDAA becomes law.

“I expect that coming out of conference there will be something that the department can very easily work with,” Barnes told SpaceNews. “I have never seen support for space stronger than it is right now,” Barnes said during a joint interview at Los Angeles Air Force Base with Lt. Gen. John Thompson, commander of the Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center.

“Both the House and Senate have done something that looks like and smells like a space force, in whatever final form it takes,” said Barnes. “The fact that they have acted is an extraordinarily powerful statement.”

Thompson agreed that support for space is growing both on Capitol Hill and in DoD despite the leadership transition now underway. “I would characterize the whole conversation as a healthy dialogue between us and the congressional committees,” said Thompson. “I have not seen the acrimony that some would have anticipated.”

The space organization that the Senate voted departs dramatically from what the Pentagon proposed in February, but the Air Force expected that to be the case, said Barnes. “Our intention is that we will adjust course as it becomes clearer how things are going to play out in the NDAA when it’s all said and done,” he said. ‘The dollars associated with a Space Force or Space Corps are very modest at this point.”

Congress remains concerned about the cost of a space service, Barnes said. The Air Force is studying options to structure the new service without piling on costs, for example, by consolidating Space Force and Air Force activities in existing facilities and assigning general officers from within the Air Force ranks and not adding more generals.

“My view of the House and Senate versions of the NDAA is that they know that whatever they do in the first year is not going to be what it looks like four or five years later,” said Barnes. In the Senate language, he said, the expectation is “let’s get this started and then figure out where it needs to go. They’re very clear that there will be changes.”

On Thursday the Senate also confirmed the nominations of Gen. John Raymond to be the commander of U.S. Space Command and Chris Scolese to be director of the National Reconnaissance Office.

Thompson said he had been rooting for Raymond’s confirmation. “I don’t know anybody that is more dynamic leader and ready for a big challenge like this than John Raymond.”