Deputy Defense Secretary Shanahan hints at future shifts in space investments
WASHINGTON — Deputy Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan said discussions are underway on how DoD should budget funds for space technologies as the Pentagon embarks on a reorganization of space forces.
Speaking on Wednesday with a group of reporters at the Association of the U.S. Army’s annual symposium, Shanahan said those conversations are currently taking place with the leaders of the military services and with Undersecretary of Defense for Research and Engineering Mike Griffin.
In a keynote speech earlier at AUSA, Shanahan called on the Army to change how it buys technology for its future force, especially in newer areas of warfare like cyber and space.
“That’s where we’ve been spending quite a bit of time with Dr. Griffin, Gen. Murray and the Army leadership team,” said Shanahan. Gen. John Murray heads the newly created Futures Command that is responsible for guiding investments priorities.
The Army, for example, needs to modernize its tactical communications systems and its defenses against electronic attacks that would be aimed at U.S. satellites. One of the topics of conversation among Shanahan, Griffin and Murray is whether these capabilities would be better handled by a new Space Development Agency that would be focused on cutting-edge space technology.
“As we build out the budget, where would you plug the space money? Would you plug it into the Army, or do you plug into the Air Force, or into a Space Development Agency?” Shanahan asked.
Shanahan and Griffin have challenged the Army to justify why they should develop their own systems instead of buying commercially available alternatives. One of Griffin’s questions, said Shanahan, is “What’s your track record been like in developing this technology?”
Griffin is a proponent of standing up a Space Development Agency precisely to take on efforts like next-generation satellite communications and countering anti-satellite weapons.
Shanahan said his comments were not “meant as an advertisement for the Space Development Agency” which so far is only a proposal, but he suggested that having an organization like the SDA could help the services get cutting-edge space capabilities faster. The question for the services is, “What are those things you want to put your energy into?” Shanahan asked. ‘We want the Army to put their energy into combat vehicles, vertical lift, precision fires.”
There is a case to be made that things like communications, command and control could be better handled by the Space Development Agency, he said. “Because these things involve space, involve networks, ground stations, 5G, should you be working with a different body that has that responsibility?”
One of the challenges DoD faces in space programs is “what are the architectures and how to we go about the systems engineering so we can leverage work that’s already been accomplished by commercial space,” said Shanahan.
Futures Command is studying these issues and eventually will have to decide which of those pieces they really want to double down on and do themselves, he said. “Other parts may make more sense to do as an enterprise with the Department of Defense.”
Shanahan said he spends a couple of hours each month on these discussions. Soon it will be time to “get into the nuts and bolts of the approaches.”
A legislative proposal that DoD will submit to the White House in December will recommend how space forces should be reorganized to comply with the Trump administration’s directive to create a Space Force. The proposal also will “contemplate what gets aggregated” in the budget, meaning what space program funding stays in the service where it’s now and what moves to the Space Development Agency. “One side of me says, ‘If it’s already in place, leave it alone,’” said Shanahan. “For new things, that’s what’s on the table. What’s the best way to approach it?”
Shanahan is weighing two different approaches. One is Griffin’s recommendation to shift next-generation space efforts to a new agency that would report to him initially. The other is Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson’s proposal to align the Space Development Agency with current rapid procurement organizations and with U.S. Space Command. Both are on the table, he said. “Is it better to have a technical approach or a warfighter dominated approach? There are different ways to tackle it.”
The issue is far from being settled, he said. “The final answer won’t happen this month or next month.” The Pentagon is now concentrated on the budget proposal for fiscal year 2020, and any major shifts in space funding would presumably affect later budgets.
Shananan said the details of the space reorganization are “important details” but not as significant as issues like how to develop space capabilities faster and how to develop a “clear doctrine” for how the military should operate in space.
Most of his focus has been on “how we accelerate capabilities in space, on the authorities needed to operate in space, and how do we get a clear doctrine, how do we really give a Space Command the tools they need to effectively protect and defend our assets?” said Shanahan.
“As we change to space being a war fighting domain, we need clear doctrine, there shouldn’t be any ambiguity,” he said. “That requires considerable thought and attention. It is not something you can just quickly decide. But we have to address it earlier rather than later.”
Space reorganization on one side, and space policy and doctrine on the other are “two parallel efforts I’ve been very concentrated on,” Shanahan said. “The structure, the overhead are details, they are important details but I don’t think they require the intellectual rigor that the other two areas.”
Doctrine is critical, he said, because the United States in engaged in a strategic competition with space-faring nations like China and Russia. “At what point does it go from competing to combat? We know what that looks like in the battlefield. But when you’re in cyberspace or outer space, what’s that demarcation?” he asked. “You have to be very thoughtful.”