WASHINGTON — Even with a packed agenda as acting defense secretary, Patrick Shanahan plans to remain hands-on in formulating a proposal to establish a new military branch for space.

“The Space Working Group established last year by Secretary Shanahan will meet as scheduled,” a senior defense official told reporters on Thursday. “I say that just to highlight the fact that the Space Force legislative proposal was a focus of Secretary Shanahan’s as deputy secretary, and those efforts are going to continue as scheduled.”

Known as the “Working Group for Space Force Implementation,” it was established by Shanahan in September to hash out the details of standing up a new service. The group includes representatives from across the Defense Department. Shanahan directed in a Sept. 10 memo that the group should meet “at least weekly to ensure strong coordination and unity of effort.”

At the Thursday meeting, the group will “continue to refine the rollup plan for the legislative proposal,” the defense official said. The proposal has to be approved by the White House before it is submitted to the House and Senate Armed Services Committees. DoD also has to request funding for the Space Force in the budget proposal for fiscal year 2020 due Feb. 4.

According to a draft of the proposal that SpaceNews reviewed Dec. 20, DoD will recommend that the Space Force be formed as a separate branch within the Department of the Air Force, in the same mold as the Marine Corps that is part of the Department of the Navy.

Air Force officials would not comment for this story. According to a DoD source, Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson has been involved in the Space Force working group from the beginning and supports Shanahan’s proposal.

Space Development Agency

Still unresolved is one of Shanahan’s top priorities in the space reorganization, which is to establish a Space Development Agency. He has argued that a new agency is needed to field new capabilities faster, capture technologies from the commercial space industry and consolidate overlapping research projects from across DoD.

Shanahan told reporters in November that he wants to stand up the Space Development Agency in the first quarter of 2019, well in advance of any Space Force decision by Congress. The agency initially would be run by Undersecretary of Defense for Research and Engineering Mike Griffin and eventually would become part of the Space Force.

But the debate on what the agency should be or what it should do is far from settled. There are space development organizations already in existence in DoD, and critics have questioned why a new shop is needed to do the same work that is already being done.

Experts have criticized the Space Development Agency plan as putting the cart before the horse.

“First we should settle on what the Space Force is going to be, what its structure is going to be,” said Andrew Hunter, director of the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ Defense-Industrial Initiatives Group. “Who is actually the customer of the SDA?” he asked. “What I hear is a lot of confusion about what the mission of this organization is.”

The former deputy commander of U.S. Cyber Command, retired Lt. Gen. James “Kevin” McLaughlin, had a similar take. If DoD wants improvements in space acquisitions, he suggested, it should support existing organizations with experienced people, eliminate complex chains of command and wasteful bureaucracy that slow programs down. A new agency would not solve that problem, he said.

Retired Air Force Maj. Gen. Thomas Taverney, former vice commander of Air Force Space Command, also agreed that DoD should try to fix the problems in current organizations before it rushes to stand up a new one. “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.”

Some of the answers may come in the next few weeks. Griffin last month directed Fred Kennedy, the director of the Defense Advanced Research Projects 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 has 60 days to complete the task.

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...