U.S. Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson and Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David golden prepare to testify June 6 before the Senate Armed Services Committee. Credit: U.S. Air Force

NATIONAL HARBOR, Maryland — As Congress prepares to debate the creation of a new military branch devoted to space, Air Force leaders insist that they are taking significant steps to boost space programs and operations.

“I will continue to advocate for space for all the services, and in particular for the Air Force,” Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson said Sept. 18 at the Air Force Association’s Air Space Cyber conference here.

Without mentioning congressional efforts to segregate a portion of the Air Force under a separate “space corps,” Wilson was insistent that the service has been and will continue to be a champion for space. Both Wilson and Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein have pushed back on the idea of breaking off space forces into a separate service.

“The Air Force has been the lead service for space since 1954,” Wilson said. Most recently, the secretary of the Air Force also was designated principal adviser to the secretary of defense on space matters.

The Air Force recognizes that more investments are needed in space systems as adversaries threaten U.S. dominance, she said. “Space was a benign environment up until 10 years ago. We must expect space to be a contested domain in any future high-end conflict,” Wilson asserted. “Our space systems must be resilient so we can take a punch and fight back.”

To give space more clout inside the Pentagon, the Air Force is standing up a new office to be led by a three-star deputy chief of staff for space operations, Wilson said. “It will be the voice for the space community,” she said. “The chief and I expect this position to identify requirements, streamline operations and meet the demands of space as a war fighting domain.”

Wilson also said she intends to take an active role in the newly created White House National Space Council led by Vice President Mike Pence. “I look forward to supporting Vice President Pence and Defense Secretary to shape America’s space policy,” she said.

The secretary also pointed out that the Air Force’s fiscal year 2018 budget seeks a 20 percent funding boost for space.

The Air Force controls about 90 percent of the military’s space programs. It is seeking $7.7 billion for space programs in the 2018 budget — including $4.3 billion for research and development and $3.4 billion for procurement.

Efforts by Air Force leaders to bolster space programs come as Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Ala.), chairman of the House Armed Services strategic forces subcommittee, continues to criticize the service for shortchanging space and for failing to embrace change. He inserted language in the fiscal year 2018 National Defense Authorization Act to create a separate space corps. The amendment was passed by the House but did not make into the Senate bill. It will be a contentious issue when both chambers meet in the coming weeks to reach a compromise.

“Space is not given the priority, it is competing with other service priorities,” Rogers said at a recent industry conference. “The Air Force has 90 percent of budget, but the Air Force has 12 core missions,” he said.

“The Air Force says how important space is but is not putting the money behind it.”

Brian Weeden, space policy expert at the Secure World Foundation, said the Air Force rhetoric intended to head off Rogers’ push is not likely to appease the congressman and others who believe space needs a stronger champion.

Even with all the changes and funding the Air Force is proposing, “Rogers and others don’t think they’re going far enough or moving fast enough,” Weeden told SpaceNews. “There is growing support in the ‘space power’ community that wants a separate service.”

Many of the issues that Rogers brings up are “real issues, and are serious concerns,” said Weeden. “In the past the Air Force has prioritized nonspace over 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...