On National Security | Trump’s Space Force at a critical juncture
“On National Security” appears in every issue of SpaceNews magazine. This column ran in the April 8, 2019 issue.
President Donald Trump’s Space Force proposal has received a chilly reception on Capitol Hill. Upcoming hearings will serve as barometers of the congressional mood as the defense committees begin to work on the fiscal year 2020 National Defense Authorization Act.
Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan has pitched the space reorganization as a three-legged stool. First, DoD will stand up U.S. Space Command to handle warfighting responsibilities. The second piece is the Space Development Agency, which will bring next-generation technologies into military space systems. The final leg is the Space Force, the military service responsible for organizing, training and equipping space warriors.
U.S. Space Command should be officially established in the coming weeks. Air Force Gen. John “Jay” Raymond was nominated to be the commander and is awaiting Senate confirmation. The Space Development Agency was signed into existence March 12 and will be led by newly appointed director Fred Kennedy.
The third piece of the space reorganization puzzle, the Space Force, is far more problematic. Unlike the other two, it cannot be formed by executive order and requires bipartisan support in both legislative chambers to be enacted into law.
Shanahan has urged lawmakers to authorize the new military branch in the 2020 NDAA. Right now that looks like a long shot.
The Pentagon’s best hopes lie with the House Armed Services Committee, which in 2017 made a major push to create a Space Corps but couldn’t get the language into the NDAA due to Senate opposition. Two years later, the Senate still does not appear to have warmed to the idea even though Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman James Inhofe (R-Okla.) has supported most Trump initiatives.
“I’m skeptical,” Sen. Angus King (I-Maine) told Air Force officials March 27 during a strategic forces subcommittee hearing. “I want somebody to explain to me why we need a Space Force … It strikes me as a solution in search of a problem,” King said. “You guys really can’t manage this now under the auspices of the Air Force?”
Others have raised similar concerns in private meetings with DoD officials. Not only do lawmakers question the rationale for a new service but they also worry about the cost. The Pentagon is requesting $72 million to set up the Space Force headquarters in 2020 with about 200 people, and projects needing $500 million annually over the following five years to build and sustain a force of 12,000 to 15,000 people. But even Shanahan has acknowledged that this is a “top down” estimate that could grow as more details about the scope and mission of the Space Force are firmed up.
House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith (D-Wash.) voted in favor of a Space Corps in 2017. He now says he supports the idea of a new organization for space but has rejected the Pentagon’s proposal as too expensive and loaded with bureaucratic bloat. DoD has suggested placing the Space Force under the Air Force, with its own four-star chief of staff, vice chief of staff and a civilian undersecretary.
Smith has said his committee would put forth its own proposal. It would be a leaner organization, he said, that would help advance the military’s space capabilities but not saddle DoD with additional overhead and administrative costs.
In private, Space Force proponents say they worry about headwinds gaining strength. The politics of creating a new military service — which by definition adds bureaucracy — is a tough sell in the current political climate. Democrats have said they will oppose the Pentagon’s proposed 2020 budget, which increases military spending by 5 percent compared to last year, unless there are equivalent boosts to domestic program budgets — something the administration is strongly against.
Having the president’s fingerprints all over the Space Force has also made it a divisive partisan issue, which has not helped DoD argue its case on Capitol Hill that a space branch should be debated strictly as a national security priority.
One idea floated on Capitol Hill is to revisit the Space Corps blueprint initially proposed in 2017, with no mention of “Force.” That could make it easier to get Democrats onboard without the tie to Trump, and appeal to lawmakers on both sides if it comes at a smaller cost.
Whether it’s a Space Force or a Space Corps, if either one is ever to come to fruition, its advocates had better figure out how to make the politics work.
Sandra Erwin covers military space for SpaceNews. She is a veteran national security journalist and former editor of National Defense magazine.