WASHINGTON — As Congress prepares to write legislation that would authorize the Defense Department to stand up a space service, lawmakers have lots of decisions to make, including the name of the organization. The House version of the National Defense Authorization Act establishes a Space Corps, while the Senate version calls for a Space Force, the name preferred by President Trump.
“A name is just a name, you can call it whatever you want. But I personally believe Congress should name it Space Defense Force,” said Todd Harrison, senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and a prominent advocate of a space service. Space Defense Force “more accurately emphasizes the primary job of military space forces, which is to defend our assets in space,” he said on Wednesday at a Brookings Institution panel discussion.
One of the criticisms against the administration’s plan to create a separate military space branch is that it promotes the militarization of outer space and that it could increase the likelihood of armed conflict.
Mallory Stewart, former deputy assistant secretary of defense for arms control verification and compliance, is not in favor of a space service but agrees that adding the word “defense” makes a difference. “A Space Defense Force would make me feel a lot better from a diplomacy angle, given that that’s what it’s truly meant to do, defend our assets,” she said. “The fact that the Space Force rollout is playing into a Russian narrative that the U.S. is trying to dominate outer space is not helpful,” Stewart said. “The details of how the new service will be organized and what it will do will make a different, too. That could help the diplomacy side and help the U.S. win that narrative.”
Obstacles ahead for Space Force
There are other differences between the House and Senate bills that will have to be reconciled by a conference committee after Congress returns from the August recess. The House would have a commandant in charge of the Space Corps. The Senate has a commander running the Space Force. “A lot of the details will be worked out,” said Harrison.
But he worries that even if Congress gives DoD the green light to establish a space service, executing the task could be difficult. The space branch would sit under the Air Force, and bringing it to fruition will require moving existing organizations, people and programs. Turf battles could slow things down, Harrison cautioned. “The big issue is the implementation, specifically what forces transfer into this new organization,”
“It’s not as if we’re creating something new from scratch. We already have space forces today,” Harrison said. Most are in the Air Force but also in the Army and the Navy. “In my mind, the main reason for creating a Space Force is to integrate all those different units that do space under one unified chain of command.”
Both the Senate nor the House bills allow DoD to move people and programs from the Air Force to the new branch, but not from the other services. This could be problematic, Harrison argued, because unless the Army and Navy volunteer to transfer their space units, military space will remain fragmented. Allowing the Army and Navy to keep their space units, he said, undermines the idea of a Space Force as a consolidated service that owns all military space capabilities.
Harrison pointed out both the Navy and the Army already have made moves to protect their assets and prevent DoD from taking their space personnel and funding. The Navy agreed to turn over to the Air Force future narrowband communications satellite programs, but it is not transferring the existing narrowband constellation, which would amount to billions of dollars and hundreds of people. The Navy in June rebranded its Space and Naval Warfare Systems Command and changed its name to Naval Information Warfare Systems Command. “They took the S from SPAWAR so they won’t have to transfer anybody and lose any top line budget,” said Harrison. “I would call BS on that and I would make them move people, move some billets and budgets associated with it.”
The Army similarly has sought to de-emphasize its space activities, Harrison said. “The Army is trying to minimize how much they actually do in space.” The Army Space and Missile Defense Command has a large workforce of space operators and develops its own satellites. “I have heard rumors they are arguing that they should not transfer their satellites or infrastructure to the Space Force,” Harrison said.
The Army about 10 years ago started developing its own satellites for remote sensing to give soldiers in the field easier access to imagery, and Army leaders have embraced the idea of tactical satellites that battlefield commanders can control.
Harrison fears this could lead to a repeat of what happened when the Army spun off its aviation forces into the Air Force but still kept many of the aircraft. “We should learn from 1947 when we created the Air Force,” he said. “We did not move all land based fixed wing aircraft into the Air Force. And we ended up with the four air forces we have today.”
“We need to be cognizant of that,” said Harrison. “Hopefully the conference committee will think about these things and make sure that if we’re going to create a space force, or whatever we end up calling it, that we actually move all of our space capabilities in the military into the organization so we can achieve the benefits of that, and not end up with a fractured chain of command organizational paralysis.”
Congressional appropriators so far have not agreed on how much funding they will approve for a space force. The House cut the Pentagon’s $72 million request to $15 million to stand up the new service headquarters at the Pentagon. Harrison called the funding issue a “red herring.” The money is already in the DoD budget to fund the space branch, he said. “We spend about $15 billion a year on unclassified space. Those funding lines: would transfer to a space force.”
The question that Congress is wrestling with is how much extra funding they would allow beyond what’s already being spent on space. The Senate’s position is that the Space Force headquarters should be funded with existing resources. “Actually, that is not a bad idea,” Harrison said. “The Air Force Space Command headquarters in theory should just be transferring over.”
Some money will be needed for general officer billets and contractors, said Harrison. “But in the grand scheme of a $738 billion defense budget, this is dust. You can easily reprogram money if you need it later on.”
Panelists dismiss SDA
Harrison is a staunch advocate of a space service but is highly skeptical of the Space Development Agency, an organization stood up in March under the undersecretary of defense for research and engineering Mike Griffin.
“Of the three major space organizational reforms this administration proposed — Space Force, Space Command and Space Development Agency — the SDA was the first to stand up and to get a leader. And I think it will probably be the first one to go away, quite frankly,” said Harrison.
“There’s always been some fundamental questions about what its role is going to be and how is it different from the other space organizations we already have,” he said. “And why is it not being organized under the Space Force? We are creating a new branch of the military to try to integrate all of our space capability, so why is this new organization not being put under that? That is a big question.”
According to the March 12 memo signed by then acting defense secretary Patrick Shanahan, the SDA would be placed under Griffin’s organization but the long term goal was to move it under the Space Force once it was established. Shanahan was eager to get the SDA up and running and did not want to wait until Congress authorized the Space Force.
Harrison said that was a bad idea. “Creating an SDA off on the side further fragments things and mis-aligns us.”
Madelyn Creedon, former principal deputy national nuclear security administrator, called the SDA a well intended effort that was poorly executed. “I give kudos to Mike Griffin because I think he was trying to come up with a more creative way to solve a problem,” said Creedon. “Unfortunately I don’t think it was the right answer because it creates another entity that does space acquisition. If we’re going to fix space acquisitions, we should do what the 2001 [Rumsfeld] commission recommended: have a single acquirer for military space capabilities. And the NRO [National Reconnaissance Office] should be a part of this.”
Stewart agreed. “Bringing a new acquisition entity into a very divided community where the NRO is going to maintain its own acquisition capacity has big problems,” she said. “Turf wars and acquisition together makes a bigger problem that I don’t think is going to go away by creating an SDA.”