WASHINGTON — President Trump’s pick for defense secretary Mark Esper told the Senate Armed Services Committee that, if confirmed, he intends to get involved in the Space Force legislative debate.
Esper testified in front the committee on Tuesday in his confirmation hearing. If the full Senate approves him, perhaps as early as next week, Esper would be taking over as Pentagon chief as the House and Senate prepare for a contentious conference where they will negotiate the final language for the 2020 National Defense Authorization Act.
Appearing before the SASC less than 24 hours after the White House sent the official nomination to the Senate, Esper mostly breezed through the hearing. The only tense moment came when Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) grilled Esper for his ties to top defense contractor Raytheon and for his decision to not recuse himself from all matters affecting the company.
Esper’s remarks on the space reorganization came near the end of the hearing when Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-ND) asked him to comment on the congressional language in the House and Senate versions of the NDAA to establish a space service.
Esper said he “obviously supports the budget proposal we put forward” but did not endorse any specific congressional proposal. “At this point in time the House has a view on that, and the Senate has a view and I think obviously, if confirmed, I want to engage the committee as you approach conference, both committees to come up with a right solution.”
Cramer asked a similar question last week to Joint Chiefs Chairman nominee Gen. Mark Milley during his confirmation hearing. Milley said he supported the Senate’s proposal that calls for an incremental approach to standing up a Space Force.
Esper said this is the right time to create a space service, and compared space forces today to air forces in 1947. “When they pulled the Army Air Corps out of the United States Army, it freed up our aviators to think about warfighting in the air domain and how you conduct warfare unencumbered by a hierarchy, if you will, that was focused on ground combat,” he said. “That’s how I think about this problem. I think we just got to realize that it is a new domain of warfare and it requires a different organizational construct and a different way of thinking about it.”
Although both the House and the Senate have some form of space force language in the NDAA, they differ on the specifics of how it should be organized. Pentagon officials have been in talks with the Senate Armed Services Committee and are seeking revisions to the Senate language, which does not allow DoD to create a service immediately and lays out a one-year transition plan during which the Air Force Space Command would be rebranded as the U.S. Space Force.
In written answers to advance policy questions submitted to the committee, Esper suggested he has issues with the Senate language. The SASC is pushing for a phased approach out of concerns about excessive costs and growth in the military bureaucracy.
“I appreciate Congress’s support for the establishment of a Space Force and, if confirmed, I look forward to working with Congress on this important initiative,” Esper wrote. “Although the SASC language provides key elements to elevating the space domain, such as the four-star military leadership with membership on the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the direct report to the Secretary of the Air Force, I urge the committee to provide the necessary technical legislative authority to establish the Space Force as the sixth branch of the Armed Forces within the Department of the Air Force. I also request the committee to provide the department with the necessary resources to ensure its success.”
Space Development Agency
Esper said in written testimony that he supports the mission of the Space Development Agency, a newly created organization that has come under political fire because of leadership turmoil.
The SDA is needed to help bring commercial space technology into DoD, Esper wrote “The SDA will have streamlined acquisition authorities and will be focused on rapid development, experimentation, and incorporation of commercial technology,” he added. “I support the Space Development Agency and its mission to unify and integrate the development of space capabilities across the Department.”
Esper said he favors “working closely with potential commercial vendors and exploring mutually beneficial ways to collaborate … SDA should influence and invest in standards development to ensure compatibility across the entire space enterprise, which will also encourage a diverse commercial supply base.”
“In my view, a key benefit to the Space Development Agency is the unification and integration of space systems development across DoD,” Esper wrote. “As such, I support existing plans for SDA to transition eventually into the U.S. Space Force, if established.”
China and Russia “pose the most pressing threats to U.S. interests in the space domain,” said Esper. But he is also concerned about North Korea and Iran. North Korea has “no space assets and its doctrine and operational concepts are unclear,” Esper noted. But that country “will avail itself of space-based services, such as intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, communications, and navigation to increase civil and military capabilities.”
North Korea “will try to deny an adversary use of space in a conflict and has demonstrated non-kinetic counterspace capabilities including GPS and satellite jamming,” he added.
Iran is pursuing a national space program to support both military and civilian goals, said Esper “Iran recognizes the value of space and counterspace capabilities and will attempt to deny adversaries the use of space during a conflict. At present, Iran is only capable of low Earth orbit launches of micro-satellites but continues to advance its technologies along with the pursuit of intercontinental ballistic missiles.”