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SN Military.Space Sandra Erwin

A December deadline looms for the Pentagon to submit a legislative proposal to the White House on how to organize an independent military service for space. And internal battles are heating up.

That reality was made clear last week by the Pentagon’s space reorganization boss Deputy Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan. Speaking at the Air Force Association’s annual symposium in front of a huge audience of service officials, Shanahan did not sugarcoat the challenge: “We’re working to create a Space Force which, as you might imagine, is a complicated process.”

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WHAT EVERYONE AGREES ON: That space has become “contested” and that the U.S. military needs to do develop “defendable” satellite constellations. There is also broad support for the transition of Air Force Space Command to full combatant command status, to be designated U.S. Space Command.

WHERE THE FAULT LINES LIE: President Donald Trump asked for an independent military branch for space, but should that be a full department with its own headquarters, service academy, recruiting and all the costly paraphernalia that comes with a military department? “There’s plenty of debate about the how,” said Shanahan. Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson said in a memo that DoD has an obligation to implement the president’s “intent” and that would be a fully loaded military branch with an estimated price tag of $13 billion over five years. Shanahan did not openly challenge Wilson’s proposal but did praise her political skills. “Secretary Wilson is brilliant on, you know, how do we put together a legislative proposal.”

Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson speaks at the Air Force Assocation's Air Space Cyber symposium Sept. 17. Credit: U.S. Air Force
Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson speaks at the Air Force Association’s Air Space Cyber symposium Sept. 17. Credit: U.S. Air Force

AIR FORCE ADVOCATES PUSH BACK: As Wilson’s memo was making headlines at the AFA event, the association put out a pointed rebuttal to the whole idea of a Space Force. Not only is it fiscally irresponsible, AFA argued, but it jeopardizes military war fighting capabilities by taking space out of the Air Force at a time when the air and space domains have become more tightly woven together than ever before.

PRICE TAG UNDER ATTACK: The cost of a separate service is what could ultimately bring the Space Force back to Earth. Lawmakers have questioned the need to spend additional billions for something the Air Force is already doing. Budget analyst and space policy expert Todd Harrison, of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, questioned Wilson’s estimate and suggested it was intentionally inflated to ensure it doesn’t get past Congress.

HOW DOES THIS GET RESOLVED? Sources tell me the Air Force is prepared to go to the mat to defend the secretary’s blueprint. DoD is said to be unhappy with the $13 billion number but has yet to offer an alternative estimate. How the Space Force is organized will dictate the cost, but there is a wide spectrum of options between what Wilson put forth and Shanahan’s suggestion that the “headquarters will be lean, with every possible resource devoted to enhancing our capabilities.”

SPACE DEVELOPMENT AGENCY A LIGHTNING ROD: One of Wilson’s most forceful arguments is that the Space Force should have its own acquisition organization, so she is proposing that a new Space Development Agency be combined with the current Air Force Space Rapid Capabilities Office, and that they be rolled into the new service along with the National Reconnaissance Office that develops the military’s most sensitive and sophisticated satellites. DoD wants to avoid a turf war with the intelligence community and would prefer to not touch the NRO for now. It also disagrees with Wilson’s concept for the SDA. Undersecretary of Defense for Research and Engineering Mike Griffin is said to have proposed setting up an SDA under the Pentagon chain of command, like the Missile Defense Agency. Wilson said that approach would be counterproductive and create additional bureaucracy that would be disconnected from space operators.

WHAT NOW? Unless the Pentagon can quickly come together on a Space Force concept, it may fall on Vice President Mike Pence — the administration’s point man on space issues — to dictate what ultimately gets into the legislative proposal. Then the ball will be in Congress’ court. Space Force champion Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Ala.), chairman of the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Strategic Forces, said he would introduce a bill in January to give the Pentagon authority to create a Space Force. Support for a space branch on Capitol Hill is far from a sure bet in light of the cost estimates and continuing questions about why a new bureaucracy should be created when the Air Force already is taking care of the administration of space forces and U.S. Space Command would be well equipped to handle the military challenges. An industry source with close ties to Capitol Hill said many lawmakers have become alarmed by the scope and potential cost of a Space Force.

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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...