On National Security | Space Force seizes high ground at Air Force annual gathering

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“On National Security” appears in every issue of SpaceNews magazine. This column ran in the Sept. 24, 2018 issue.

The Air Force Association held its annual symposium last week near Washington. It had shaped up to be, as in years past, three days of high-level speeches about Air Force strategic priorities, fiscal challenges and opportunities.

President Trump’s directive to create a Space Force, however, hung like a dark cloud over the event, creating an awkward climate at what’s normally a celebration of Air Force space prowess. It also made for a delicate situation for military contractors that that didn’t want to be caught in the middle of a political brawl.

But the Space Force dominated the conversation starting on Day One of the conference when Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson dropped her Space Force proposal — a detailed blueprint for how to organize a new branch, including missions, functions, estimated costs and personnel requirements. An earlier critic of a separate service for space, Wilson came out swinging with a plan she insisted “implements the president’s vision.”

Amid the buzz from Wilson’s memo, the Air Force Association voiced opposition to separating space from the Air Force. “Today, to split up the well-integrated set of air and space capabilities that have been organized to seamlessly contribute to America’s military capabilities would result in more harm than good,” it said in a position paper.

While AFA made doctrinal and philosophical arguments against a separate space force, this will be a political fight, and the cost of standing up a new service is emerging as an early battleground. IWhen Wilson’s memo hit the news with the estimated $13 billion price tag, it set off speculation that the Air Force was padding the bill to kill the proposal.

It’s a strategy that might work. Todd Harrison, an analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the $13 billion estimate is way high. He argues that Wilson added 13,000 people that might not be needed and a billion dollars for a questionable construction project. One thing a highball estimate does accomplish is “shift the debate to how expensive this is going to be,” he said. However much it ends up costing, the Space Force quickly could make political enemies as it would drain resources not just from the Air Force but from the other services as well, unless Congress increases the Pentagon’s top line.

Wilson called her $13 billion projection “conservative.” The president asked for a full military department and that comes with a lot of overhead and people, she suggested in her memo.

On Day Two of AFA came a surprise visit by Vice President Mike Pence, Trump’s point man for standing up Space Force. He toured the exhibit hall but made no public comments about Space Force.

The Pentagon official in charge of the space reorganization, Deputy Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan, took the stage on the third day of the conference. His appearance was highly anticipated coming on the heels of Wilson’s memo that challenged some of Shanahan’s ideas about how to set up a Space Force.

But Shanahan avoided open turf warfare, striking a collegial note instead.

“Together we are working to create a space force, which as you might imagine, is a complicated process,” he said. There are disagreements, which he called “arm wrestling contests.” He said there is still “plenty of debate” ahead about how a Space Force should be organized, “but we are united by the why.”

One of the hurdles is that the United States has not stood up a new military service since the Air Force split off from the Army more than 70 years ago. “It’s been since 1947 that an exercise like this has been undertaken,” Shanahan said. “The playbook is out of date. So we don’t really have something to go pull off the shelf.”

Shanahan reassured the audience that the Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center — the primary procurement arm for military space — is not on thin ice, even if the Pentagon moves to create a Space Development Agency


Sandra Erwin

 

Sandra Erwin covers military space for SpaceNews. She is a veteran national security journalist and former editor of National Defense magazine.