WASHINGTON — Political disagreements aside, the Trump administration’s push to create a separate branch of the military for space is being challenged on grounds that an expensive bureaucracy could undermine the central goal of boosting military capabilities to defend satellites and the nation’s access to space.
Vice President Mike Pence said the administration would ask Congress for $8 billion over the next five years to get the Space Force off the ground. It’s unclear if Pence meant this would be new money to be added to the Pentagon budget top line or whether these funds would be redirected from other accounts. Experts are warning that if the Space Force is set up as an independent service, its substantial administrative costs could eat up funds that might otherwise be spent training and equipping forces with next-generation space technology.
Congress has the final word on Space Force budget and authorities, and proponents of making it an independent branch of the military face an uphill battle. Meanwhile, an internal battle for resources is brewing inside the Defense Department.
“There is no argument that there has to be more investment in space capability, but will the overhead cost of the Space Force eat into investments and other warfighter priorities?” said Wesley Hallman, senior vice president for policy at the National Defense Industrial Association.
“It’s always a competition for resources,” Hallman told SpaceNews.
A retired Air Force officer, Hallman said he welcomes the administration’s interest in space but would like to see more analysis on whether creating a new military branch is the best approach. He noted that his association’s members have not taken an official a position on the Space Force.
“We all want this to work,” he said. But does it have to be a separate service? “That implies you have to have an independent recruiting command, basic training, a service academy, a medical corps. Are you going to create those redundancies because you decided this needs to be an independent service?” Hallman said. “There’s going to be an overhead bill that you’re not currently paying. How do we ensure that this ends up being more space capability? Is it going to take resources from efforts to build a 355 ship navy? Will it take resources from buying 1,763 F-35 fighters that the Air Force needs?”
He suggested it might be more efficient to set up the Space Force under the umbrella of the Department of the Air Force — like the Marine Corps, which is part of the Department of the Navy.
A panel of Pentagon advisers, the Defense Business Board, wrote in a report last year that personnel expenditures are the “most significant overhead expense in the DoD.” It warned that decisions to grow the size of agencies or create new ones often are made without considering the long-term cost burdens. “DoD component organizations add compounding costs to an already unsustainable labor workforce bill to the U.S. government,” the report said. “Labor decisions appear to be made with minimal consideration for lifecycle costs.”
Deputy Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan told reporters that cost estimates for the Space Force have not yet been done, and noted that White House Budget Director Mick Mulvaney’s guidance is to “make sure whatever you do adds value.”
Shanahan said the guidance means there will not be a “sprint to create big headquarters or hire chaplains or lawyers. It’s really about capability, and as you stand up capability, make sure you have the right support.”
What exactly is the “right support” has yet to be defined.
“It’s going to take a lot of hard thinking and analysis,” said Hallman. “The money to pay for these costs has to come from somewhere. People cost money.” Historically it has been shown that “additional overhead doesn’t usually translate into benefits for the warfighter.”
‘Space is different’
Frank Kendall, former undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology and logistics, said the Pentagon has increased budgets for space programs both in the Air Force and in the classified accounts. It is a completely different issue “whether you need an independent service that has all the accoutrements of an independent service, and there are a lot of them,” Kendall said last week on WJLA’s Government Matters.
Kendall also suggested that having an organization focused solely on space creates a risk that space programs will be isolated from the operational needs of the military services. “Space is different,” said Kendall. “It provides services to the entire military.” The Air Force today “has skin in the game” because it needs the services that are provided from space. “If you have a separate service only focused on space you may break that linkage,” Kendall said. “I don’t think people have even begun to address all the difficulties of unwinding the very densely woven fabric that is space-related activities across the DoD.”
The core missions of the Air Force depend in varying degrees on space assets, noted industry consultant Loren Thompson, of the Lexington Institute. “So it is no exaggeration to say that the creation of a Space Force presents an institutional crisis for the Air Force.”
If an independent Space Force is stood up, that will launch an “endless competition to see which service claims which missions — and the budget resources associated with those missions,” said Thompson. “The Air Force won’t just lose control of satellites and their ground stations — it will also probably lose responsibility for intercontinental ballistic missiles, warfighter networks and many cyberspace functions.”
Over the longer term, Thompson added, even Air Force logistics functions may come under threat from the new service. For instance, the Air Mobility Command has recently been talking with space launch providers about moving materiel overseas via rocket rather than aircraft. “Sound unlikely? Leaders of the Space Force won’t think so.”
Former deputy assistant secretary of defense Celeste Ward Gventer said forming a sixth branch of the military is “by far the most ambitious and far-reaching approach and has the greatest potential for unintended, blow-up-in-your-face consequences,” she wrote in War on the Rocks. “The rationale for this option is the least persuasive and also the most likely to fail in Congress. Not only would a new department and independent service require a new bureaucracy, funding, personnel, uniforms, and so on, the whole edifice of Department of Defense governance would have to adapt. Presumably even congressional committees would need adjustment in order to accommodate the oversight requirement for a new service.”
The Washington Post editorial board also weighed in on Friday: “For now, it is unclear whether a big, new military reorganization would add anything useful to what the administration is already doing — setting up a joint space command, putting more emphasis on developing new space military technologies and pushing harder for the cultivation and promotion of space-oriented officers and specialists,” the Post argued. “The administration should step up these efforts, not inaugurate a massive bureaucratic overhaul that could for years prove a diversion and distraction.”