WASHINGTON — The Trump administration’s effort to create a new military service for space cleared a critical hurdle as the Senate Armed Services Committee on May 22 voted to approve the establishment of the U.S. Space Force in its markup of the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2020.

The committee voted 25-2 to advance the legislation to the Senate floor, possibly the week of June 10. A summary of the markup was released on Thursday.

The SASC vote to authorize a Space Force is not surprising from a Republican-controlled Senate. But it was not seen as guaranteed given the skepticism voiced by committee members during a hearing April 11 with Pentagon officials. Several senators questioned the rationale and cost of standing up a new military bureaucracy to handle functions that the Air Force already does.

The committee agreed with DoD’s recommendation to establish the U.S. Space Force within the U.S. Air Force. But it set a number of conditions and a one-year timeline for the Defense Department to start building the Space Force and prove to lawmakers that the administration has a vision for the new service.

Space Force commander

The Pentagon proposed creating a Space Force headquarters under the Air Force led by a four-star chief of staff who would be a member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and a civilian undersecretary of the Air Force for space. The SASC did not agree with that approach on grounds that it adds excessive bureaucracy and cost.

The SASC bill tries to shrink the cost and ease the growing pains of establishing a new service by making the commander of Air Force Space Command also the commander of the U.S. Space Force. During the first year after the service is authorized, this dual-hatted commander would report through the Air Force chief of staff to the secretary of the Air Force, and after a year he would report directly to the secretary of the Air Force. The commander would be invited to Joint Chiefs of Staff sessions on space related topics for the first year before becoming a permanent member.

As part of the first year transition, the commander of the U.S. Space Force also would serve as the commander of U.S. Space Command, a new unified command that the Pentagon expects to soon stand up. After one year, the two positions would be separated.

The Space Force initially would only rely on existing Air Force personnel and would not be allowed to hire new military or civilian personnel. The Pentagon proposed transferring people for the other services and hiring more civilians.

The SASC has scheduled a confirmation hearing June 5 for Air Force Space Command’s Gen. John Raymond to be commander of U.S. Space Command. If the committee’s NDAA becomes law, he also would be the commander of the Space Force. “We are anxious to get him in front of the committee so he can tell us what he thinks of what we did in this bill and tell us how he’s going to stand up U.S. Space Command if he is confirmed,” said a committee aide who briefed reporters on Thursday on Capitol Hill.

Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan, who oversaw the writing of the Space Force legislative proposal and has been a staunch advocate, tweeted on Thursday: “I commend the Senate Armed Services Committee for authorizing the establishment of the Space Force as the sixth branch of the Armed Forces.”

A committee aide cautioned that many of the details of the SASC proposal will not be revealed until the full text of the legislation is out next month. The committee’s version of the NDAA, if approved by the full Senate, will have to be reconciled with the House version in a conference committee, so the Space Force authorization is far from a done deal. House appropriators in their version of the 2020 defense budget denied funding for the Space Force and called on DoD to study alternatives.

Todd Harrison, defense analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told SpaceNews that the odds of the Space Force becoming law have gone up significantly after the SASC vote. “I think the big issues for debate in the conference committee are going to be the exact structure and function of the Space Force, not whether a new service is needed,” said Harrison. “It’s important that the Senate is moving the entirety of Air Force Space command into the Space Force, otherwise I think the Air Force was going to try to keep significant portions of Air Force Space Command personnel. That would ultimately drive up the cost and cripple its operations because many of those support functions would have to be rehired if they didn’t transfer over.”

Space acquisitions

The SASC believes the slow pace of acquisitions of next-generation technologies is a central problem that could put DoD at a disadvantage against competing space powers like China. One of the issues that the committee wants to fix is the “integration and synchronization” of space programs that are currently fragmented across multiple organizations, said the committee aide. The SASC bill expands the job responsibilities of the current principal assistant to the secretary of the Air Force for space. That position would become principal assistant to the secretary of the Air Force for space acquisition and integration, and would oversee all space acquisition activities, including a new Space Acquisition Council.

The staffer said the Space Acquisition Council would be created to help “replicate the magic of the NRO” in the Space Force. The National Reconnaissance Office designs and develops complex spy satellites with less red tape and at a faster pace than the Air Force. The SASC bill does not recommending merging the two organizations but the committee believes they should work together.

The staffer said the committee envisions the Space Force will be small and could take years to grow. Its proposal is consistent with the way other services were stood up, he said. The commandant of the Marine Corps, for example, was not a sitting member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff from day one. SASC members are concerned about moving too fast because DoD does not seem to have a solid plan yet. The staffer said the committee’s proposal was influenced by the April 11 testimony of Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford, who noted that the DoD proposal is an “80 percent solution” to get things started and that there would plenty of opportunities for Congress to provide oversight going forward. The SASC agreed. “I think it’s responsible to take this thing at a pace that makes sense to give them a year to get this together and figured out,” the staffer said. DoD in its proposal envisions a five-year timeline for standing up the Space Force, which indicates “they don’t have it all figured out,” the staffer said. “Our bill is trying to give them time to figure this out.”

The committee is willing to give the administration authority to create the Space Force but the administration is going to have to do the hard work, the staffer said. “These are questions to ask the White House: If they have these authorities, what will they do?”

The SASC in the NDAA markup supported DoD’s funding request of $72.4 million to stand up the Space Force. But once the new service is authorized, the committee is going to require DoD to report to Congress every 30 days and ‘tell us where they are,” said the staffer. “This is not the committee trying to put our thumb on them. It just shows that we’re very supportive and we want to get it right,” he said. Committee members “do not want a lot of bureaucracy and a whole lot of fancy stuff. They want it to be real.”

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...