Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.) Credit: HASC.

WASHINGTON — The Defense Department last month put forth a plan for establishing a Space Force as the sixth branch of the armed forces. Congress in due time will counter with its own Space Force proposal, said House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith (D-Wash.).

Speaking on Wednesday at a defense industry conference hosted by McAleese & Associates, Smith said he could not imagine that the Space Force as proposed by the White House “is going to pass.”

Smith was a  proponent of a separate military branch for space long before President Trump seized on the idea. The House Armed Services Committee in 2017 approved legislation to create a Space Corps under the Department of the Air Force, a similar construct to what the White House is now recommending. The House language was stricken from the 2018 National Defense Authorization Act due to Senate opposition.

But Smith said he would not support Trump’s proposal, at least not without substantial changes. “What I don’t like about the proposal from the White House is that it’s too expensive, it creates more bureaucracy,” said Smith. “We don’t want more people, we want to figure out how to better emphasize space.” More four-star generals are “not going to make us stronger in space,” he said.

House Armed Services Strategic Forces Subcommittee Chairman Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.) and Ranking member Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Ala.) will be in charge of drafting the committee’s blueprint. “I’m quite confident that Chairman Cooper and Ranking member Rogers will come up with a proposal for emphasizing space that doesn’t involve creating a whole new bureaucracy,” Smith said. “It’s going to be different than what the White House proposed.”

Smith also questioned whether the Space Force will have enough support in the Senate. “The Senate has not done anything on this,” he said. “I don’t know who the voice in the Senate would be on how to modernize our approach to space within the military.”

It is not clear how the HASC would organize a space branch at less cost than what the Pentagon proposed. According to officials who briefed reporters March 1, the estimated annual cost for a Space Force would be $500 million and its size about 15,000 people, including a headquarters of about 1,000 personnel. That would be the smallest branch of the armed forces by far.

A military service requires a minimum number of people to do administrative functions even when the size of the force is small, a senior defense official told SpaceNews. “A staff of 1,000 is a very reasonable number for a service headquarters because if you look at the size of the Coast Guard, for example, they have about 2,000 people and they are a force of about 86,000.”

Senators question Air Force leaders

Questions about the Space Force also were raised on Wednesday during a hearing of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense where Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson and Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein testified on the service’s fiscal year 2020 budget request.

Ranking Member Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) suggested the whole concept of the Space Force “needs to be thoroughly vetted and carefully reviewed before we stand up another branch of our military.”

Durbin wondered if a new service could result in an “uncontrollable” growth in bureaucracy. “The late John McCain spoke of many times about the possibility that we’re putting more people in the Pentagon than we are in the field. We need to make sure that whatever we’re doing, we’re consciously avoiding overspending.”

Wilson noted that the legislative proposal does say that there will be a chief of staff for the Space Force but the remainder of the structure is still up for discussion between the secretary of defense and the secretary of the Air Force. “I think it’s reasonable to presume that if you’re going to have a four star, you have to have a certain number of four and three and two and one stars underneath it in order to support the effort.”

Senate staffers are analyzing the proposal, Durbin said. “We’re told that the bureaucracy that we would create will cost $2 billion over the next five years. And it’s just an estimate. There are experts looking carefully at this. But we ought to be asking ourselves, are we just dazzled by this notion of a Space Force? Is this going to make us safer? Would $2 billion spent on new equipment, better equipment, more training for those who operate the equipment be a better investment in national defense than a Space Force?”

Defense appropriators along with the Armed Services Committees have to ask these questions, Durbin said. “I don’t want to rain on this Space Force parade, but I do think we ought to have a cold day of reckoning here, in terms of whether this is something which we will come to regret when we look at a bureaucracy which may be rivaling the number of people it’s supposed to be serving.”

Pentagon officials this week have met with lawmakers and staff to discuss the Space Force proposal, a more meetings are scheduled in the coming weeks. According to DoD sources, there is still a lot of skepticism on Capitol Hill about the strategic rationale for a new service and still many questions about the long term costs.

The Pentagon has distributed glossy booklets about the Space Force around Capitol Hill and posted hundreds of pages of documents online hoping to sway doubters. One defense official said responding to congressional concerns has been more difficult than expected. “It’s a complex discussion,” he said.

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...