Pentagon presses case for Space Force amid political uncertainty

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There is apprehension in the Pentagon that the presidential impeachment inquiry and congressional gridlock will keep defense bills from being passed.

WASHINGTON — Defense Department officials will attend a White House meeting on Tuesday to discuss preparations for the standup of a Space Force as soon as Congress authorizes a new service.

A White House source told SpaceNews the Oct. 15 meeting will be a “routine DoD update” related to the anticipated establishment of a new military service. Preparations to create a space service under the Air Force continue despite an uncertain political climate and no assurances from Congress that it will enact a Space Force in the 2020 National Defense Authorization Act as the sixth branch of the armed forces.

With NDAA conference negotiations already under way, there is apprehension in the Pentagon that the presidential impeachment inquiry and the gridlock that has gripped the Congress will keep defense policy and funding bills from getting passed. One potential scenario, sources said, will be an abbreviated NDAA that might include some Space Force language but perhaps not everything the Pentagon wants.

The Senate named all 27 members of the Senate Armed Services Committee to the conference committee. The House selected 32 conferees, including members of the House Armed Services Committee and 14 other committees.

The NDAA conference will have to reconcile differences between what the House and Senate have proposed. The House NDAA establishes a U.S. Space Corps as a sixth branch of the armed forces within the Department of the Air Force. The Senate NDAA establishes a U.S. Space Force but not as a sixth branch of the armed forces. House appropriators approved $13.5 million to “study and refine plans for the potential establishment of a Space Force.” Senate appropriators funded the DoD’s requested amount of $72.4 million for the Space Force.

Sources familiar with the ongoing debate said there are lingering concerns, especially on the Senate side, about the potential cost of a new military branch, and committees continue to ask DoD tough questions.

“They have asked questions, they’re doing their oversight,” Stephen Kitay, deputy assistant secretary of defense for space policy, told SpaceNews Oct. 10 at an AFCEA industry event in Arlington, Virginia.

Kitay said he could not predict what Congress will do. “We put our proposal out there,” he said. “We’ll answer any questions. We are responding.”

In remarks at the AFCEA event, Kitay suggested that the Senate language is problematic because it does not provide the authority DoD would need to establish a service.

“It’s key to have those authorities,” Kitay said. “We cannot actually develop a sixth branch without the authority provided through Congress that would then get passed into law.”

While the House recommends establishing a Space Corps as the sixth branch, the Senate sets up a Space Force “by changing the structure within the Air Force and creating a new reporting chain,” said Kitay. The Senate, for example, re-designates the Air Force Space Command as the U.S. Space Force but does not call it a “sixth branch.”

If that one line “as a sixth branch of the armed forces” is not written into the bill, it would not be possible to modify Title 10 of the U.S. Code (the law that defines the structure of the U.S. military) and a Space Force would not legally be an independent service, Kitay explained.

A Space Force without Title 10 authorities would just be a name change and not a service. It would have to depend on the Air Force for its budget, training and recruiting.

Kitay acknowledged that DoD has to improve its messaging regarding the Space Force. “When people hear about the Space Force, I’m pretty sure a fair number of them don’t necessarily understand what we’re really talking about and how extremely important a Space Force is to our country.” Kitay said. He added that a Space Force would “unify space-related activities within DOD.”

DoD has pushed back on congressional budget analysts’ projections that the Space Force will add billions in overhead costs. A Pentagon team led by Air Force Maj. Gen. Clint Crosier has drawn up plans to organize a Space Force mostly by transferring Air Force personnel.

The Congressional Budget Office analysis debunks DoD predictions that the Space Force can be done at minimum cost.

“The Pentagon has to figure out how to absorb the cost, make the tradeoffs to make the funding work,” said a former Pentagon official who is familiar with the space reorganization. Many lawmakers have been insistent that they would only agree to establish a Space Force if all its costs are covered with existing DoD resources. But the former official said it would be a “pipe dream to tell DoD they can have a new service at no additional cost.” DoD has been adamant that the new service will be lean but Space Force advocates privately acknowledge that the new branch will need a big bureaucracy to fight for resources and turf inside the Pentagon.

In a May report, CBO estimated that even if most of the Space Force personnel are transfers from other branches of the military, at least 5,700 additional people will be required for overhead and management functions, to support combatant commands and for recruiting and training. The Pentagon rejected the CBO numbers as overblown.

CBO also pointed out that the headquarters of a military service, based on historical trends, is going to be a certain size no matter how small the actual force. The report estimates the Space Force headquarters would be about 2,500 people, the same size as the headquarters of the Marine Corps and the Air Force, even though the Marine Corps is one-third the size of the Air Force. DoD has said the Space Force would have about 15,000 members so it would be the smallest service by far.