Budget analysts challenge Air Force cost estimates for creating a space force

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Todd Harrison on Air Force secretary's budget estimate. "The methodology is not very sophisticated. They’re giving no indication of where they got the numbers from. I don’t give this a lot of credibility.”

WASHINGTON — Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson’s estimate of what it will cost to stand up a new military service for space is not credible and the numbers appear inflated, defense budget analyst Todd Harrison said on Thursday.

Harrison, director of defense budget analysis and senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said Wilson’s $13 billion estimate — which includes setting up a Department of the Space Force, a U.S. Space Command, a Space Development Agency and sustaining them over five years — is grossly inflated because it includes thousands of additional personnel that might not be needed and a billion-dollar construction project that seems questionable.

Wilson on Tuesday characterized the $13 billion number as “conservative” and suggested it could go higher once all the data is crunched.

During a CSIS news conference, Harrison said the estimate lacks sophistication and appears to have been slapped together in a hurry. CSIS budget analyst Seamus Daniels calculated that the personnel costs were based on a per-person annual compensation of $175,000.

“I wouldn’t take issue with that number,” said Harrison of the $175,000 per person. Space activities require an expert workforce so that cost is not unrealistic, he said. “What I think is unrealistic is how many additional people they assume they need.” Wilson’s proposal would add 13,000 personnel to the Defense Department payroll. Harrison and other critics have questioned why Wilson didn’t recommend that the Space Force be formed with existing personnel.

Wilson’s budget projection includes a billion dollars for a construction project for U.S. Space Command that Harrison said makes no sense, since the Pentagon already has many buildings that could be repurposed.

Harrison said Wilson also boosted the cost by scoping the Space Force as “broadly as anyone could imagine.” It doesn’t just include the space forces from the military services but also components of the Missile Defense Agency, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the National Reconnaissance Office, and elements of NASA and the Department of Commerce space activities.

“This is the broadest possible definition of how you could scope a space force that anyone could possibly conceive,” said Harrison.

Wilson calls this a conservative estimate, he said, “but this is the highest estimate you could possibly come up with.”

Harrison said the numbers are sloppy. “I don’t think there’s a lot to this process. The methodology is not very sophisticated. They’re giving no indication of where they got the numbers from,” he said. “I don’t give this a lot of credibility.”

Harrison and Daniels are working on their own budget estimate for a Space Force but that could take some time because they are still digging through the numbers to figure out how much DoD spends today on space. Much of the funding is in a classified budget. Last year the Pentagon said the unclassified space budget was about $12 billion, and more than $8 billion goes to the Air Force’s space activities.

Wilson provided the cost estimates in a Sept. 14 memo in response to a Sept. 10 directive from Deputy Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan to submit a concept for how to create a Space Development Agency. Wilson came back with a entire proposal for standing up a Space Force. “It’s interesting she did that,” said Harrison. “I would say this is an example of malicious compliance.”

But Harrison would not speculate on Wilson’s motivations and did not suggest she was intentionally trying to cause sticker shock. “I wouldn’t want to assume the reason why they’re doing this.” The Air Force has been on the record all along opposing any type of space reorganization that takes space out of the Air Force or even a reorganization inside the Air Force, Harrison said.

One thing a highball estimate does accomplish is “shift the debate to how expensive this is going to be,” he said. However much it ends up costing, the Space Force could drain resources not just from the Air Force but from the other services as well, unless Congress increases the Pentagon’s top line. “The Space Force competes with all the services equally,” Harrison said.

Wilson insisted in her Sept. 14 memo that she was “implementing the president’s vision.” President Trump in June ordered DoD to create a service for space of equal status and standing as the Army, Navy and Air Force. In recent public appearances, Wilson repeatedly said she believed that if the administration and Congress are going to go through with the creation of a new service, it should be done “the right way.” In her mind, that means it should have all the accoutrements of a military department and its own procurement organization.

In her memo, Wilson is insistent that she put forth a proposal that follows the president’s order. Shanahan and others have suggested a space force should have a “lean” headquarters and minimum bureaucracy. Wilson said her proposal would be “fulsome” and not a “half measure.”