Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.), ranking Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee. Credit: C-Span

WASHINGTON — There is “bipartisan concern” that standing up a Space Force as a separate military service is wasteful and not the best way to address space security challenges, Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.), the ranking Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, told reporters on Wednesday.

Smith is expected to take the chairman’s gavel from Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Texas) in the next Congress. Although he previously supported legislation to create a Space Corps within the Air Force, Smith came out against President Trump’s idea to establish a Space Force as an independent branch.

The Pentagon is working with the White House on a legislative proposal to be submitted to Congress with the fiscal year 2020 budget. According to sources, the White House would support organizing a Space Force under a broad Department of the Air and Space Force, a similar concept to what was  proposed in the Space Corps provision that the HASC voted for in its version of the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2018. A Space Force as an independent department would be much more costly than if it were organized within the same department as the Air Force.

Smith said he has not yet seen the White House proposal. “Obviously I’m aware of it. I know the broad outline,” he said.

The committee has been a strong advocate of the military space mission, and probably would have reintroduced the Space Corps bill in the 2020 NDAA. But after Trump seized the mantle and demanded that a Space Force be organized as a standalone military department, many Democrats and some Republicans have soured on the idea.

“The general opinion is that we need to place greater emphasis on space,” said Smith. “It is also the opinion of a lot of members of Congress that the Air Force has not done as good a job managing our space assets as they could.”

Smith was especially critical of how the Air Force has handled space launch procurement. He said HASC members continue to be outraged that the Air Force wasted billions of dollars by creating a military launch monopoly in 2006 — the United Launch Alliance — because it did not believe it could sustain two competitors. Lockheed Martin and Boeing then merged their launch businesses and created ULA. The joint venture owned the military launch market exclusively until SpaceX in 2014 sued the government in order to be allowed to compete.

“The difficulties we’ve had with space launch has been a good example” of why a different approach is needed to manage military space, said Smith. “We spent an enormous amount of money on space launch and at the same time become reliant on Russian made engines.” The main engine of ULA’s workhorse rocket Atlas 5 is the Russian-made RD-180. Congress passed legislation in 2016 that requires the Air Force to develop domestic alternatives and prohibits the Pentagon from signing contracts for Atlas 5 launches after 2022. The Air Force has signed cost-sharing agreement with commercial launch providers to ensure their U.S.-made rockets meet national security launch requirements. Officials said they expect new vehicles to be available by or before 2022.

The Air Force in 2006 argued that it was too costly to invest in two competitors and that “competition was impossible, and of course SpaceX proved us wrong,” Smith said. “Now we’re getting to the point where there are many companies  competing. … Meanwhile, we have spent way too much money on launch, and made a number of questionable decisions on launch.”

More broadly, the Air Force has not put “sufficient emphasis on space,” said Smith. “But creating a whole new bureaucracy, a whole new branch of the service to address it, I don’t think it’s the best way to do it,” he added. “There is bipartisan consensus on that.”

In the new Congress, “we will have a conversation within our committee about the best way to place a greater emphasis on space,” he said. “There is bipartisan concern about creating a separate branch of the military for space.” Smith noted that the Pentagon “wasn’t crazy about a Space Force until the president decided we had to have one. He’s the boss, so once he decided that, they all got on board but they know that this isn’t the best way to do this. We’ll have to work through that.”

HASC Chairman Thornberry in October asked the Pentagon to provide cost estimates for a Space Force as an independent military department and for alternatives such as the Space Corps model. “We’ve seen a bunch of different numbers,” said Smith. “There’s no clear consensus on what the right number is.” Whatever the number is, “It’s been my experience that it’ll probably be higher than what we estimated.” The point is that money should not be spent on bureaucracy, he insisted. “We just want to place greater emphasis on space given its emerging importance.”

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...