WASHINGTON — At a gathering of space executives and policy experts on Thursday, Pentagon officials mostly sidestepped the Space Force issue. Undersecretary of Defense for Research and Engineering Michael Griffin said he was not intentionally dodging the question but he simply does not know when or how a new military branch will be organized.

During a Q&A session at a U.S. Chamber of Commerce summit to promote the space industry as an engine of innovation and economic growth, Griffin was asked about the status of a new agency that DoD is expected to stand up in 2019 to develop and acquire space technologies.

“We made that recommendation,” Griffin said of the Space Development Agency, with the goal to “coalesce and restructure space development under one agency.” But he said he had no further details. “I would be getting way ahead of my headlights,” said Griffin. “How things shake out over the next year or two, I can’t predict.”

Deputy Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan said last month that the Space Development Agency would be up and running in the first quarter of calendar year 2019. Griffin suggested the process is complicated because the Space Development Agency is one piece of a larger effort to create a separate military branch. He noted that the Space Development Agency was part of a proposal on the reorganization of space forces that Congress mandated in the fiscal year 2018 National Defense Authorization Act. “All of this, of course, was being done at the same time President Trump issued a directive for the creation of a separate space force. All that stuff has to play together,” he said. “We are still scrambling to understand ourselves how we might make that work,” he told the audience. “I’m sorry to give you such a waffling answer. But the truth is I don’t have any better one.”

Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson spoke earlier at the event but did not mention the space reorganization, and did not take questions from the audience. In her speech, she laid out efforts the Air Force has taken on over the past year to accelerate the development and procurement of space technologies, and pointed out that Congress supported major funding increases for space in the Air Force’s budget for fiscal year 2019.

Wilson mentioned that Griffin had complained in the past that “we have been playing checkers and not chess” in space as adversaries move to challenge the United States. “That is changing with the fiscal year 2019 budget and the national defense strategy,” she said. “The U.S. Air Force will be playing three-dimensional chess on orbit — with funded programs, training, well led people, and with equipment for a contested domain.”

She also touted reforms she initiated last year to simplify acquisitions and move programs faster through the bureaucracy. “I would go so far as to say the Air Force right now is implementation acquisition reform more aggressively and systematically than any other entity in government, and space is actually a very good example.”

In an interview with SpaceNews on Monday, Wilson insisted that the Air Force would stay focused on the space mission even as the administration presses on with the organization of a new space branch.

Both in the interview and in her Chamber of Commerce speech, Wilson was “signaling Congress that whether America has a space force or not, the Air Force is prepared to protect and preserve America’s orbital advantages,” said industry consultant Loren Thompson, of the Lexington Institute. “Wilson is in a tough spot because almost nobody in her service likes the idea of a separate space force, yet her job is to carry out the president’s agenda,” Thompson told SpaceNews. “So Wilson is saying to Congress, ‘You pick the organizational framework, and whatever it is, we will get the job done.’”

Sandra Erwin writes about military space programs, policy, technology and the industry that supports this sector. She has covered the military, the Pentagon, Congress and the defense industry for nearly two decades as editor of NDIA’s National Defense...