WASHINGTON — The House Armed Services Committee had planned weeks ago to hold a hearing on “space war-fighting readiness.” In a case of fortuitous timing, the day before the hearing President Trump thrust the topic into the spotlight.

No one was more pleased by the president endorsing the idea of a military space force than Rep. Mike Rogers, who chairs the HASC strategic forces subcommittee and has relentlessly pursued the cause.

“I was happy to see that the first question from Chairman Granger to Secretary Wilson was about President Trump’s call for a space force,” Rogers said at the Wednesday hearing.

At a different hearing on the Air Force budget, Rep. Kay Granger, chair of the House Appropriations defense subcommittee, was questioning Secretary Heather Wilson and Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein.

Rogers informed his fellow HASC members that Wilson had dodged the question. “She politely said, ‘We look forward to the conversation.’”

The president embracing a scheme that is fiercely opposed by his own Defense Department clearly has put Air Force leaders in an awkward position. The witnesses at the HASC hearing, meanwhile, were not government officials and spoke bluntly about underlying problems in the military space world that continue to irk lawmakers.

Doug Loverro, former deputy assistant secretary of defense for space policy, said he is fully onboard with the concept of a dedicated space force. “It’s a question of whether you peel the band-aid off slowly or you rip it off. I am ready to rip the band-aid off,” he said. The Air Force space corps “needs an identifiable existence within the Air Force.”

He estimated that there are about 5,000 people in the military in space-related jobs — about 2,000 space operators at Air Force Space Command and about 3,000 involved in managing space acquisition programs. Additionally there are several hundred space intelligence officers.

“I don’t know what the president meant,” said Loverro. “What he should have meant is that we lack a focus on space. That focus is necessary to keep us in the lead.” A service to protect U.S. interests in space? “I don’t believe we have that today,” he said. “That would be a ‘space smart’ force.”

Retired Gen. Robert Kehler, former commander of Air Force Space Command and U.S. Strategic Command, wondered whether a separate military branch for space would become a shiny object that distracts more than it helps.

“There has to be a conscious effort to over-nurture space for a time,” he said. “It may be that we need to go to a separate space corps or a space force in the future. But those are really big steps.” The Air Force has increased the space budget and tried to give space more attention, “but space has not gotten the consistent priority treatment that it needs to include the management of personnel that makes non-aviators war fighters,” Kehler said.

In the near term, it would make more sense for the Air Force to give more power over acquisition programs to “this hybrid command called Air Force Space Command,” said Kehler. “My preference would be to see that.” A space corps could end up being a distraction, he aid. “We have urgent matters that need to be solved. I would hold people in those jobs accountable for solving those problems instead of coming up with something new.”

The Air Force needs to groom people for space jobs, he said. “We need people in uniform who understand the fundamentals of joint war fighting while at the same have technical expertise in the space domain.” The submarine community in the Navy is a useful model to follow, he said. “They are war fighters but operate in a unique domain.” The Air Force also needs civilians with deep technical expertise on how to bring commercial technologies into military programs.

Todd Harrison, a space expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said he assumed Trump was speaking off the cuff when he mentioned the need for a space force. “This has been a discussion for two decades,” he told the committee.

He said the United States is at risk of being outmatched in space by China and Russia, and that the military is not moving fast enough to modernize.

Loverro said he found it alarming that the Pentagon spends years studying programs and delaying decisions. From both the military and civilian defense leadership, he said, “we continue to hear the same — that they intend to build the resilient and responsive space architectures called for in our National Space Policy and our DoD Space Policy. And yet, as I review the president’s 2019 space budget I see little in common with those stated desires.”

The Air Force in the 2019 budget proposed to replace the Space Based Infra-Red System (SBIRS) with a next-generation system. But a close examination of the budget suggests the Air Force plans to buy a newer version of the existing satellites.

“So while China and Russia are driving through generations of anti-satellite systems every three to five years, it is taking us over a decade to even begin to field a system responsive to their first-generation threat,” Loverro said.

“In speech after speech we hear about the role of allied and commercial space — we just fail to fund it,” he said. “DoD continues to drag its feet.” As a result, it is highly doubtful that the next generation of GPS user equipment will be able to receive signals from the multitude of allied or foreign sources they could use. And it is also highly likely that the first generation of large low-earth-orbit satellite communication constellations from OneWeb, SpaceX, Telesat and the like will launch without any real input from DoD on military cybersecurity needs, “much less our investment to make those needs a reality.”

HASC Chairman Rep. Mac Thornberry, who supports Rogers’ efforts to create a space corps, seemed troubled by Loverro’s assessment of military programs and technologies. He told Loverro some of his statements warrant further investigation by the committee. “I would point out that this committee has been very active in trying to prepare the military and the nation for the challenges of space,” he said. “Whe have empowered the deputy secretary of defense to oversee Air Force space reform efforts, among other things. But we will not relax our effort. This topic is just too important.”

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...