WASHINGTON — Vice President Mike Pence visited the Pentagon on Wednesday to receive a briefing on space operations and cyber defense. One of the topics was the proposal the Pentagon is drafting to establish a Space Force as a separate military branch.
Speaking with reporters shortly before Pence arrived at the Pentagon Wednesday morning, Deputy Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan said the establishment of a Space Force was one item on the agenda. “We’re going to talk to him about a number of projects going on here in the building,” Shanahan said, according to a pool report.
Pence came to the Pentagon one day after announcing that President Trump directed the Defense Department to establish U.S. Space Command as a four-star combatant command. Speaking on Tuesday at the Kennedy Space Center, Florida, Pence said Trump will also sign a new space policy directive in the coming days that will lay out plans and a timeline to create a U.S. Space Force as a sixth branch of the armed forces. “We’re working as we speak with leaders in both parties in Congress to stand up the United States Space Force before the end of 2020,” said Pence.
The new space policy directive, named SPD-4, is the fourth major space policy action by the Trump administration. According to sources, the directive is being finalized and could be signed by the president shortly after the new year. The policy memo would instruct DoD to submit a legislative proposal on how the new service would be organized and a budget request. The National Space Council, led by Pence, has been in back and forth coordination with DoD on the legislative proposal.
Shanahan told reporters on Wednesday that the legislative proposal has not yet been shared with Congress. “We’re right now in final coordination in the building on the legislative proposal,” he said. “I think we’re still on the timeline. We’ve kind of all talked about it.”
DoD sources said the Space Force proposal will likely recommend organizing the new branch initially under the Department of the Air Force. This would make the Space Force comparable to the Marine Corps, which is part of the Department of the Navy. This approach would be less costly and more likely to get congressional support, experts said.
Organizing the Space Force under the Department of the Air Force is “probably the most logical way to solve this in the near term, said Thomas Taverney, a retired Air Force major general who served as vice commander of Air Force Space Command.
The Space Force under this construct would still meet the criteria to be considered a sixth service, Taverney told SpaceNews.
However the Space Force is organized, he said, “the most important thing is to have a command structure that goes to bed at night and wakes up in the morning thinking only about the space mission and worrying only about the space mission,” Taverney added. “A Space Force equivalent to the Marine Corps would meet that criteria.”
Congress will be concerned about the cost, he noted. Historically, Defense Department reorganizations end up being more expensive than estimated. In this case the Pentagon could keep costs under control by making the Space Force a leaner organization that does not require multiple layers of bureaucracy to get things done, Taverney said. “I think there’s an opportunity here. When the other services were set up we didn’t have the technological capabilities we have today. Now you don’t need as many people. We can take this opportunity to relook at how decision making is done, how information is passed and maybe do it in a totally different way,” he said. ‘Maybe we can come up with a more efficient way to set up the organization.”
One still unresolved point of contention in the DoD space reorganization is a plan — strongly backed by Shanahan and Undersecretary of Defense for Research and Engineering Mike Griffin — to create a Space Development Agency to accelerate innovation and insertion of commercial technology into space programs.
Griffin in recent weeks has said that the Space Development Agency is still a work in progress and that its functions and makeup have not yet been decided. Earlier this month, Griffin directed Fred Kennedy, the director of the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency’s Tactical Technology Office, to set up a study team to map out a concept for how to organize the Space Development Agency, and recommend what functions and responsibilities it should have. The team will have 60 days to complete this task.
Taverney said there are still major unanswered questions about the Space Development Agency. “What is it going to be? An overarching policy organization? A separate acquisition organization? Or a new acquisition organization that takes pieces from the others?” he asked. Taverney said Kennedy is a good choice to take this on, not just because of his role at DARPA but also his past experience working at the Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center. “SMC has hundreds of years of space acquisition expertise in its workforce,” said Taverney. The problem is that they have to work under a set of rules that “probably doesn’t let them move as fast as the world would like them to move.”
It is not clear how a Space Development Agency would fix that, he said. “If the SDA looks at how we change the rules of how we acquire and leverages the expertise in existing organizations, I think it will do well.”