Chairman Rogers: space corps needed more than ever, Air Force ‘in denial’

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Rogers: While China and Russia continue to challenge the United States in space, the Air Force appears to be more interested in fighting Congress rather than dealing with the enemy.

WASHINGTON — The chairman and ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee’s strategic forces subcommittee ripped U.S. Air Force leaders for not taking threats in space seriously and for their continued resistance to reform.

Speaking on Wednesday at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Rep. Mike Rogers and the subcommittee’s top Democrat Rep. Jim Cooper presented a united front, criticizing the Air Force for stalling legislative changes that Congress passed last year to reorganize military space programs and accelerate the development of next-generation technologies.

While China and Russia continue to challenge the United States in space, the Air Force appears to be more interested in fighting Congress rather than dealing with the enemy, Rogers said.

Both Rogers and Cooper sounded angrier and more frustrated with the Air Force than they were even a few months ago when they inserted language in the 2018 National Defense Authorization Act to create a separate space corps within the Air Force.

Rogers also was peeved that no Air Force officials showed to speak at the CSIS conference titled “Strategic National Security Space.” The event was billed as a high-level dialogue on military space and on the proposed budget for fiscal year 2019.

“I’d like to see them here today to explain what they are going to do. They chose not to be here,” said Rogers. He noted that the Air Force has yet to communicate its plans to execute what the NDAA requires. “It’d be nice to know what they’re going to do,” he said.

Conference organizers told SpaceNews that several Air Force and DoD officials were invited to speak but claimed they had scheduling conflicts.

Space corps language

The space corps provision in the 2018 NDAA passed the House but didn’t have enough votes in the Senate. The law still directs the Defense Department to hire an independent think tank to study the issue. The Air Force lost some oversight  over space budgets but essentially kept its authorities to organize, train and equip space forces. “We gave them what they asked for,” Rogers said. “They wanted more money and they got it.”

Cooper said space is a rare issue where a Republican and a Democrat are in complete agreement. “We are bipartisan. Still working on bicameralism.” The Senate did not spend enough time debating this topic and that is one reason why the space corps language was rejected. “Hopefully that will be corrected in the coming session,” said Cooper.

Rogers estimated that organizing a space corps could take from three to five years.

He said he is especially disappointed by the Air Force not showing enthusiasm or bringing forward ideas for how to modernize faster. The committee was shocked to learn more than a year ago that China had become “our peer” in space and Russia a “near peer” competitor, he said. “That’s unacceptable that we’ve allowed that to happen,” he said. “It’s essential to have space capabilities to win wars. It wasn’t like that before. And we’ve allowed our capabilities to atrophy.”

This problem “can’t be fixed within the Air Force the way it is structured now,” said Rogers.

Cooper then went on to list a litany of examples of Air Force coming up short in space: Forty years of relying on a Russian rocket engine, technical jobs at the Space and Missile Systems Center have not been filled in decades, generals with space backgrounds don’t get promoted.

Air Force leaders lost credibility, Cooper said, when during discussions with the committee they brought up uniform designs and issues like whether members of the space corps would be called “airmen.” These are trivialities, Cooper said. “What matters is capability, and the speed of acquisition.”

Air Force championing space

Air Force officials in recent months have stepped up the rhetoric on space threats, announced reforms in acquisition programs and proposed a larger budget for space. They have argued that a space corps would be counterproductive because it would divide the Air Force, rather than integrate space into mainstream operations.

The chief of the Air Force went as far as to tell airmen that they need to start thinking about space superiority the same way they think about air superiority.

None of this has impressed Rogers. “They need to do a lot more,” he said. Adding more money to the space budget is not going to appease lawmakers. “That’s the Air Force trying to get us to leave them alone,” he said. “Is it going to work? No.”

Money is still a problem, he said. “We have found over the years the Air Force used the space budget as a money pot to fund the air dominance program.” Granted that Congress has not helped with the budget in general, “that doesn’t mean you starve to death one of your subordinate missions to feed another mission you view as more important,” Rogers said. “That is why space capabilities have atrophied.”

Rogers doesn’t believe the Air Force can change its air-centric culture. “They are so indoctrinated to the way they do things. With a space corps, we can start with a clean sheet.”

Cooper said he found it “stunning that an aging and perhaps sclerotic power thinks of its own convenience ahead of everything else. We have got to get our heads in the game.” If U.S. satellites came under attack, “We could be deaf, blind and dumb within seconds,” he said. “Seldom has a great nation been so vulnerable. The Air Force should rise to the challenge and take this as seriously as we do.”

The private sector has picked up the innovation slack in space, Cooper noted. “I’m personally embarrassed that we need a couple of billionaires to make our launch more affordable,” he added. “Historians will not be kind when they look back at this period.”

Rogers agreed. “It is bad,” he said of U.S. vulnerabilities in space. “The Air Force needs to come out of denial and work with instead of fight us and keep us from meddling in this issue. We have a job to do vigorous oversight. If we find any service is not getting its job done it’s our job to get after it.”

Rogers and Cooper both complimented Deputy Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan, who was named the interim principal space adviser to the secretary of defense, a title previously held by the secretary of the Air Force.

“There are people in DoD that agree with us,” Cooper said. “I’m particularly proud that Shanahan gets us. Even some people get it in the Air Force.”

“I have confidence in Deputy Secretary Shanahan,” said Rogers. “We are in regular contact with him.”