WASHINGTON — Congress’ staunchest proponents of creating a separate military branch for space voiced frustration on Thursday over the politicization of what they consider a major national security issue.

In a joint appearance at the Aspen Institute, Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Ala.), chairman of the strategic forces subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee, and Ranking Democrat Rep. Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.), said they are disappointed by the “games” that are being played inside the Pentagon. Rogers and Cooper spent three years working on legislation to create a Space Corps within the Department of the Air Force, a bill that cleared the House last year but was defeated in the Senate.

Both Rogers and Cooper blamed the Air Force for working behind the scenes with senators to block the reorganization. They suggested that efforts to defeat the Space Corps bill, in hindsight, backfired on the Air Force because it opened the door for President Trump to direct the Pentagon to create a Department of the Space Force, a much more disruptive  and costly reorganization than what Rogers and Cooper had advocated.

“The president’s unexpected intervention in this issue needlessly politicized it,” Cooper said. The subcommittee pushed for a separate Space Corps strictly for national security reasons. “We want safer satellites for us and for the world. We want more promotion opportunities for space professionals. We don’t want to waste any money. And we don’t need a whole new separate service to do this.”

Rogers said “a lot of folks are making fun of this because President Trump got behind it. They don’t understand that what we’re talking about is national  security satellites.”

The Space Corps legislation that would have organized it within the Air Force was an “attempt to work cooperatively with the Air Force,” said Cooper. “Our proposal would have kept space within the Air Force. It was not a direct attack on the Air Force the way the president’s proposal is.”

After the president on June 18 directed the Defense Department to stand up a new military service for space, the Pentagon set in motion a number or reorganization efforts, including a legislative proposal to be submitted to Congress along with a budget for fiscal year 2020.

Congress designated Deputy Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan as the principal in charge of the space reorganization. Following a Sept. 10 memo that set deadlines for several initiatives, Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson unexpectedly submitted a memo laying out the Air Force’s vision for how to carry out the president’s Space Force orders. She estimated that standing up a full military department and a combatant command for space will cost $13 billion over five years.

‘Gold plated’ cost estimate

Both Rogers and Cooper slammed Wilson’s proposal. “A billion dollars for a headquarters, give me a break,” Cooper said. “We already are spending a fortune. The secretary testified to our committee that they have a large surplus of facilities. … This can be done in a cost effective way.”

Rogers agreed. “There is no reason to have a Space Academy. The Air Force Academy is a perfectly fine institution to train space professionals. We prohibited all that stuff in our bill. … We can get at the problem without playing games.” He called the $13 billion proposal a “gold plating” move to persuade lawmakers it’s not affordable. “That’s exactly what’s going on right now,” Rogers said.

If the Air Force made a strong case for why the $13 billion price tag is “legitimate,” said Rogers, “then we’d like to see the offsets.” That means he would expect the cost to be covered with portions of the current budgets of the Air Force, the Army and the Navy. “What I want to know is ‘What is the net difference?’”

Rogers insisted that any plan that is now being floated is “pure speculation.” He still has no idea what the administration will propose specifically, but both lawmakers suggested their original Space Corps vision would satisfy the president’s directive, would not add significant costs and would not break the Air Force apart the way creating a full department would. “We wanted to be as least disruptive as possible in standing up this new organization.”

All the president said is “I want a separate but equal space force,” Rogers aid. “It could be what we proposed: a separate service within the Department of the Air Force that would accomplish exactly what the president said.”

Shanahan said he favored adding space elements of the Army and the Navy, and the Missile Defense Agency, according to Rogers. “DoD has existing powers to take people out of the services but they need some additional statutory authorities. He will get us a proposal later this year,” he said. “They can propose anything they want to. Congress is going to decide what it’s going to look like.”

Rogers said he made it clear to Shanahan that he can propose creating a Department of Space, “but I told him I don’t think it’s necessary.”

Both lawmakers also said they were annoyed by Wilson’s suggestion that parts of the intelligence community be included in the Space Force. “What we proposed is taking existing personnel in the services, not hiring anybody else, use existing support personnel,” Rogers said.

It’s not unreasonable to argue that the National Reconnaissance Office should be part of the Space Force, said Rogers, “but I can tell you that if we start going too far into the intelligence community world and disrupt their resources, you create a political problem. This is politically difficult enough without making it a broader problem,” he said. “We want to try to keep this as lean and narrow as possible, and as inexpensive and non disruptive as possible.”

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...