House Armed Services chairman not taking sides on Space Force disputes

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HASC Chairman Mac Thornberry said his committee will want to hear more details from the Pentagon and the White House before any decisions are made on standing up a Space Force as a separate military branch.

WASHINGTON — House Armed Services Committee Chairman Rep. Mac Thornberry said he is not yet ready to weigh in on how a Space Force should be organized or how much it should cost.

Thornberry’s committee has been a dynamic proponent of a reorganization of military space forces, and that push will continue into the next legislative season, he told reporters on Tuesday on Capitol Hill. But Thornberry suggested that the scope and pace of the reorganization is still up for discussion.

Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson set off a heated debate last week when she submitted to Deputy Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan a detailed proposal for how to organize a Space Force as an independent military service, which was the mandate from President Trump. She estimated the cost at about $13 billion over five years.

Thornberry said he has not read Wilson’s proposal, but he did read news reports about the criticism lobbed at Wilson’s cost estimates by budget analyst Todd Harrison, from the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Harrison’s arguments — that Wilson’s numbers are inflated and include unnecessary costs — grabbed Thornberry’s attention.

He said he is not taking sides on the issue. “I haven’t tried to be judge and jury on arbitrating those claims,” Thornberry said. His comments suggest, however, that the committee will want to hear more details from the Pentagon and the White House before any decisions are made on standing up a Space Force as a separate military branch.

“Obviously this committee has believed we need to do something different on space for a while,” he said. “We’re going to continue to pursue that. But exactly what, and at what pace, we’ll have to work our way through, working with the Senate and the administration.”

Thornberry expects the dialogue to continue for several months. “That will be a good project for us this fall in the run up to next year.”

The committee also wants to see more details about how the Pentagon would stand up a Space Development Agency to focus on cutting-edge technologies. “I’m interested in looking at that,” said Thornberry. “Deputy Secretary Shanahan and I have had some of those conversations.”

The structure of the Space Development Agency is said to be a key point of disagreement between Wilson and Shanahan. Wilson wants the new agency to be merged with the Air Force Space Rapid Capabilities Office and transitioned to the new service after it’s formed. The Pentagon would favor standing up the SDA under the Defense Department, like the Missile Defense Agency.

Thornberry said he worries that too much attention is being paid to org charts and not enough to the substance of what space forces need. “Being able to get more capability in space faster should be one of the top priorities of this whole broader effort, and being able to defend what you have in space,” he said. “If we only talk about, think about, write about organizational structure, it’s not capturing the concerns and goals involved in the space reform effort,” he added. “It’s really about capability in space and defending that capability.”

Regardless of what the Space Force ends up costing, the Pentagon will have to balance that expense against other priorities. Congress has asked Defense Secretary James Mattis to put forth a budget request that gives the military sufficient resources to compete against rising “near peer” adversaries like China and Russia, Thornberry said.

The House is poised to vote on an appropriations package for fiscal year 2019 that gives the Defense Department $674.4 billion, an increase of $19.8 billion over 2018. Thornberry said he expects the package to sail through the House and to be signed by the president before September 30, the last day of the fiscal year. “DoD would have its money on time for the first time in nine years,” he said, calling it a remarkable achievement in today’s fractured political landscape.

The budget picture for next year may not be as rosy. Thornberry projects a Pentagon budget request for 2020 that is close to this year’s level and keeps up with inflation, and suggested the Pentagon is unlikely to get the big increase it got this year.

New expenditures like the standup of a Space Force presumably would have to be funded by cutting other programs. “I promise you that if you’re spending more money on X and you’re taking it away from Y, people who support Y are going to fuss about it,” said Thornberry. “That is political reality.”