Deputy Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan. Credit: DoD

WASHINGTON — The Pentagon is moving at a good clip to establish a U.S. Space Command and a Space Development Agency in early 2019, said Deputy Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan.

During a meeting with reporters on Thursday at the Pentagon, Shanahan spoke with a sense of urgency about the DoD space reorganization.

“I’d love to make it this year,” he said of standing up a Space Development Agency to take over the procurement of next-generation technologies. While creating a Space Force as a separate military service requires new legislation, the Space Command and the Space Development Agency can be set up using existing executive authorities.

There is likely to be congressional resistance to forming a new military branch, but Shanahan said he expects no push-back on Space Command or on the Space Development Agency.

“Across the board everyone has said, ‘Accelerate your ability to deliver capabilities,’” Shanahan insisted. “That’s been universal.”

Assuming a four-star commander of U.S. Space Command can get confirmed by the Senate relatively quickly, the new organization could be in place by the first quarter of calendar year 2019, said Shanahan. “The Space Development Agency is more imminent.”

One possible holdup with the Space Development Agency could be identifying its leaders. “What’s so important in the Space Development Agency is people who can lead, that can get capability delivered. To me that’s the number one, the most important role for that leader,” he said. “We have to field capabilities. It’s not about architectures or standards. It’s about fielding capability,” he added. “That’s the discussion we are having right now. What is that work? Who do we assign to lead that effort?”

Shanahan leads a “Space Governance Committee” staffed with officials from the Joint Staff and from the military services. The group is drafting a legislative proposal to establish a new service. “What we’re really targeting is to submit the legislative proposal so that on October 1 of next year we can say, ‘Here’s the birthday of the Space Force.’”

The space governance group meets twice a week, Shanahan said. “We talk first and foremost about the timing for standing up a Space Command and the Space Development Agency,” he said. A central topic of discussion has been the “benefit of consolidating resources so you can field capability sooner. That’s is where the bulk of our debate has been.”

When the new Congress convenes next year and takes up the Space Force proposal, DoD will be prepared to defend it, Shanahan said. The likely new chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., has said he will oppose creating a new service and generally wants the Pentagon to focus on fiscal discipline.

“These are questions we’ll be expected to address,” said Shanahan. “We’re really diligently putting together a proposal that can withstand the cost scrutiny questions.”

Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson released a memo in September that estimates the setup costs for the new space branch and unified command at $13 billion over five years. Shanahan said he came up with a much lower estimate “in the single digits,” although he would not specify the number. “It might be lower than five.”

He said there are “degrees of cost” when it comes to establishing a military branch. “How much cost do we want to put into the support of the Space Force? The mission of the Space Force? The concentration of the Space Force?” Each one of those areas could be made more or less costly.

Wilson stood by her estimate on Thursday in an interview with Defense One’s Marcus Weisgerber. She said her numbers included all costs for a “fully fledged stand alone department and  a unified command.” She said she could not predict how Congress will come down on this. “I think there will be a proposal from the president in concert with his budget. I think there will be a debate and discussion with the Congress.” For the time being, she added, the Air Force will “stay focused” on space security and on fielding capabilities.

Shanahan seems highly optimistic. “What I feel confident about is that the proposal that we are going to carry forward makes sense.”

The cost of the Space Force is sure to become a contentious issue especially in the wake of new budget guidance from the Trump administration to cut federal spending by 5 percent, including national defense, which would be reduced from last year’s projection of $733 billion to $700 billion. Shanahan said DoD is drafting two budgets in compliance with the president’s direction. But he said that even under a reduced top line, DoD would be able to justify funding for a Space Force. “Space is a super high priority,” he said. “That’s why I feel good about space. That’s why I’m confident talking about space.”

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...