WASHINGTON — Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson asserted on Wednesday that the service is not pushing back on President Trump’s idea to create a Space Force. She offered no new details on how the process of forming a new service might unfold but insisted that this “has to be done the right way.”
Wilson opposed past congressional efforts to carve out portions of the Air Force to create a separate service. Along with Defense Secretary James Mattis and the rest of the Pentagon, she is now following the president’s orders.
“We expect to put forward a proposal with the president’s budget for fiscal year 2020 that includes a Department of Space that the president has outlined,” Wilson said at a conference hosted by Defense News in Arlington, Virginia.
Since the president issued orders to the Pentagon in June to create a Space Force, Wilson has not publicly said much on the matter. Before that, she frequently discussed the Air Force’s space mission and highlighted it in most of her public speeches. At the Defense News event, Wilson did not mention space in her prepared remarks and only addressed the topic in the Q&A portion.
“I think the proposal is wholesome,” she said of the Defense Department’s Space Force plan that will be submitted to Congress. Wilson however suggested that much has yet to be debated. “If we are going to do this we should do it right.”
DoD officials in private conversations express worries that the reorganization will be chaotic and disruptive because space is woven tightly into the Air Force’s identity. Wilson’s comments about this having to be “done right” suggest that if the breakup is going to go forward, she would like to see it produce beneficial results for the force at large. One of the criticisms of Trump’s mandate is that it does not explain what problems a Space Force would fix that the Air Force could not address under the current organization.
“We support the president’s proposal,” Wilson said. That said, “none of this can happen without Congress’ involvement obviously.” Once the proposal moves forward, she said “Let’s have this debate” and also “make sure that we don’t do this with half measures,” she added. “That’s probably the most important part for me.”
One of the more contentious parts of the proposed reorganization is the creation of a Space Development Agency to oversee technology development and acquisitions. The new agency — depending on its location and its specific missions — potentially would take resources and jobs from the Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center in Los Angeles.
Wilson did not offer an opinion specifically on the Space Development Agency but did say that if there is going to be a Department of Space, it should have its own acquisition “authorities and responsibilities just like I have in the Air Force.” Again, she said, “Let’s do this right.” The president has “put forth an idea that is very forward looking, and we have an obligation to put together a proposal for the Congress that supports his intent and does this the right way. That includes full responsibility for acquisition.”
Deputy Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan traveled to Los Angeles Air Force Base Aug. 27 to address the SMC workforce. A DoD source said he sought to reassure workers that the reorganization would not put their jobs in jeopardy.
“Acquisition is a huge enabler, but getting the product right is, in my mind, the most important thing we can do,” Shanahan told SMC workers, according to a DoD news release.
The Space Force faces a long road ahead as Congress starts evaluating the administration’s proposal next year. One of the major sticking points is whether Congress will go along with Trump’s vision of a Space Force as a branch of the military equal to the Air Force, Army and Navy; or whether it should be like the Marine Corps, which is organized under the Department of the Navy.
The House Armed Services Committee passed legislation last year to create a Space Corps under the Department of the Air Force. That may not be enough to satisfy the president but it will be one of the options on the table, said Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.), the ranking Democrat on the HASC.
He said a Space Force is a “good idea,” and that the role of Congress is to “make sure we implement it properly and that it works,” Smith said Wednesday at the Defense News conference.
“I think we have a strong role to play,” said Smith. He believes space should get more attention, “but details matter and that’s where the legislative comes in,” he said. Whether the Space Force should be a separate service is “up for debate.”