WASHINGTON — House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith (D-Wash.) said he is confident his committee on Wednesday will vote to authorize a separate military branch for space.

“We have an agreement on an amendment that will be added in the full committee markup,” Smith said on Monday during a breakfast meeting with reporters.

In the chairman mark of the committee’s version of the 2020 National Defense Authorization Act, Smith did not weigh in on the Trump administration’s Space Force proposal. Instead he worked out a deal with the leaders of the HASC Strategic Forces subcommittee — Chairman Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.) and Ranking Member Mike Rogers (R-Ala.) — to introduce an amendment proposing a separate space organization in the Defense Department. Smith suggested the committee might call it a Space Corps, rather than Space Force. A corps is what the committee proposed in the 2018 NDAA.

The amendment that will be offered by Strategic Forces is “pretty much what we did two years ago,” said Smith. “I’m in agreement with Cooper and Rogers.”

Defense officials were surprised to hear over the weekend that Smith’s mark did not have any Space Force language. Some thought it was an intentional maneuver to position the HASC in a stronger negotiating position in a future House-Senate conference where they will hash out their differences. The Senate Armed Services Committee on May 22 voted to authorize a Space Force although it sets strict conditions.

Smith said the only reason there was no Space Force in his mark was timing. “We were in negotiations over the exact language to go into the bill,” he said. “In the back and forth it took a little extra time. By the time we got to an agreement it was too late to put it in the mark.”

Smith cautioned that the HASC amendment creates a space service that is smaller and leaner than what the administration proposed. The Pentagon recommended appointing two four-star generals and an undersecretary to run the Space Force under the Department of the Air Force. The HASC would only support one four-star general.

“Our proposal is less costly and has less bureaucracy than what the president proposed,” said Smith. The committee also rejected the Pentagon’s request for authorities to transfer personnel from other services to the Space Force.

It’s too soon to speculate how the HASC proposal would match up against what the SASC offered, said Smith. “I’m not sure where we find that middle ground.”

Smith said he will push the committee to focus the debate on space policy and why the reorganization is needed rather than turn it into a partisan fight. “I hope Democrats understand this is not President Trump’s idea,” he said. “Whether we give him a win or we don’t give him a win, I don’t care.”

The reason a Space Corps was proposed in 2017 was that the committee was convinced that the Air Force was not doing a good job managing space, said Smith. And he still believes that. “The Air Force looks after nuclear weapons, air superiority, and bombers, and then they care about space,” he said. “I don’t trust the Air Force on its own in its existing structure to properly prioritize space.”

Air Force planning continues

While Congress debates the Space Force, the Air Force is drawing up plans to stand up a new service as soon as Congress enacts legislation. Before her departure on May 31, former Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson created a Space Force Planning Task Force that has laid out a detailed blueprint to establish a space service. The head of the task force, Air Force Maj. Gen. Clint Crosier, currently reports to John Stopher, principal assistant to the secretary of the Air Force for space. Stopher oversees the Air Force’s space portfolio, space procurement reforms and personnel initiatives the Air Force is proposing to increate the promotion rates of space officers. He was on a team of DoD and Air Force officials who briefed the Pentagon’s Space Force proposal to congressional committees.

According to sources, following Wilson’s departure there was speculation that Stopher would leave his post but decided to stay to ensure continuity in the Space Force planning process at least until a permanent secretary is confirmed.

President Trump announced last month he intends to nominate Barbara Barrett as Wilson’s replacement. Until Barrett is confirmed by the Senate and sworn in, the service will be led by Acting Secretary Matt Donovan, who served as undersecretary of the Air Force under Wilson.

Sources said the Trump administration wants to make sure the Air Force has space-focused leaders in place who understand the inner workings of the building and will be ready to help stand up the new service once authorized by Congress.

The Senate Armed Services Committee in its markup of the 2020 National Defense Authorization Act suggested the job of the principal assistant to the secretary of the Air Force for space should be expanded to include responsibilities for synchronizing procurement programs that currently are fragmented. The SASC bill recommends that Stopher’s position be renamed principal assistant to the secretary of the Air Force for space acquisition and integration, and would oversee all space acquisition activities, including a new Space Acquisition Council. The goal of the council would be to accelerate space acquisition programs.

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...