NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. — Deputy Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan was empowered by Congress to lead the process of creating a separate branch of the military for space. As a former corporate CEO, Shanahan is known to have little tolerance for bureaucratic inertia, but on Wednesday he acknowledged that the path to a Space Force has more twists and complexities than he would like.

“Together we are working to create a space force, which as you might imagine, is a complicated process,” Shanahan told a room packed with Air Force officials at the Air Force Association’s annual symposium.

“It’s pretty exciting,” Shanahan said of the space debate.

Shanahan’s speech had been much anticipated at AFA as the Air Force faces the prospect of being  broken up so a new branch can be formed with portions of the Air Force’s space components. On Monday, a memo from Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson articulating her own vision for how to create a Space Force took the conference by storm.

Despite some disagreements between Wilson’s and Shanahan’s visions for how to form a Space Force, Wilson and the entire Air Force leadership were publicly recognized by the deputy defense secretary for their “tremendous talent and expertise.”

“We get in these arm wrestling contests,” he said. Wilson, for instance, insists that the acquisition organization of the Space Force — to be called a Space Development Agency — has to be integrated with the new service so there is no separation between the warfighter and the acquisition process. “And people like me are saying, ‘maybe we should have more separation,’” said Shanahan. “That is where the debate is.”

One reason Shanahan is not convinced warfighters and acquisitions should be integrated is his past experience as a Boeing executive when he saw major procurement programs collapse because the requirements changed often, driving up cost, delays and leading to program cancellations.

So there is “plenty of debate about the how, but we are united by the why,” Shanahan said. There is consensus that a Space Force is about “protecting our economy, deterring our adversaries, and focused on delivering more capability faster,” he said. “It’s really encouraging that from the highest levels of the government people are interested in space.”

Shanahan acknowledged that many of the details of how this new branch will be organized or structured are still up in the air. In his mind, people have become too distracted by things like uniforms and rank structures whereas the top priority should be to develop advanced technology and capabilities for warfighters. “At the end of the day that is what’s most important.”

That high-level goal, however, is not easy to translate into a detailed plan that reorganizes portions of the military, affecting thousands of people, and do it in time for the fiscal year 2020 budget submission. Shanahan said DoD has a “very short period of time to create and grow a new organization.”

One of the hurdles is that the United States has not stood up a new military service since the Air Force was born more than seven decades ago. “It’s been since 1947 that an exercise like this has been undertaken,” Shanahan said. “The playbook is out of date. So we don’t really have something to go pull off the shelf.”

“How we come at the Space Force has a lot of different directions,” he said. “We drew a Venn diagram on what it is we want to accomplish and everything lays on top of one another.”

Shanahan recognized that while change is necessary, things should not be rushed without proper analysis, and ongoing missions should not be disrupted. “For a lot of us that don’t have a deep appreciation of how the department is wired, it’s intimidating. For other folks, it’s how we make sure we preserve important capabilities we rely on every single day,” he said. “We have some really serious thinking and important trade studies to conduct.”

“We’re really wrestling with the how” as a team works on putting together a plan to present to Congress, said Shanahan. “What I would tell you is that there is no groupthink in the Pentagon. It’s not like we’ve all come together and decided what to put in the legislative proposal and send the bill with it,” he added. “Along the way, we will do no harm to existing missions and create no seams between the services, and remain laser focused on our warfighter and the capacities they need to win.”

If this were up to him, Shanahan said, “we would identify what products, capabilities our warfighters need to defend our interests in space, and once we determine that we can organize around them.”

Shanahan reassured the audience that the Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center — the primary procurement arm for military space — will not be displaced even if a Space Development Agency enters the scene. “How does the Space and Missile Systems Center fundamentally change? It doesn’t,” he said.

He appeared to endorse the idea in Wilson’s memo to combine the Space Development Agency with the Air Force’s Rapid Capabilities Office. “If there was a way to replicate the RCO, put it on steroids, scale it, that would be in my mind the SDA.”

In closing, Shanahan said he still does not have the final answer on the Space Force. “We’re going to find the best way,” he said. “There will be some hammering and arm wrestling. But one thing I can say about working in the Department of Defense is that it’s the best team I’ve ever been on. We’re a team and we’ll solve it as a team.”

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...