WASHINGTON — Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan on Wednesday argued that a new military branch for space is needed to be an advocate for the mission and to ensure the United States has “unquestioned dominance in space.”

Speaking at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Shanahan boasted that it only took 18 months for the Pentagon to produce a legislative proposal to establish a Space Force, a process that started in the fall of 2017 after a conversation he had with the leaders of the House Armed Services Committee’s strategic forces subcommittee Reps. Mike Rogers (R-Ala.) and Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.)

President Trump helped accelerate the process, said Shanahan. “We faced a compelling need to move quickly,” he said. The issue is the need to “grow our margin of dominance in space. That margin is now being contested.”

The military’s existing satellites were not designed to operate in this environment, and more advanced and resilient systems are needed, he said. “The Space Force focus is on delivering capability faster.”

Shanahan said he sees the Space Force as a important asset to help protect the nation’s $19 trillion economy and the U.S military that depend on satellite-based systems for many activities.

“China is moving fast,” he said. “Last year, they put 38 rockets into orbit.”

But Shanahan acknowledged that the competition with China alone is not enough to convince lawmakers that the Pentagon should spend billions of dollars on a new military branch. One of the questions raised by members of Congress is why the Pentagon needs both a Space Force and a Space Command. Shanahan said the Space Force would provide space professionals with a career path so they can more effectively support the warfighting command. “We need to focus on developing warfighting culture and doctrine, create a pipeline of space experts.”

He said he has assured lawmakers that he would not allow the Space Force bureaucracy to grow uncontrollably. This would be a small branch, with about 15,000 to 20,000 members and a budget of about $10 billion. “It must draw off of the synergy with the Air Force,” he said.

The Pentagon said the new branch would cost $2 billion over five years. Shanahan called it a “good parametric estimate” but admitted it could change. “It’s a top down number,” he said. “We’re going to do a bottom up approach to cost. Cost grows if we don’t limit it. It think we need to cap it.” Cost growth in military bureaucracies is what normally happens, he said. “We have to be very thoughtful. We need to be very mindful about creating bureaucracy because it endures for a long time.”

Rep. Jim Cooper (right)
Rep. Jim Cooper (right)

House Armed Services Committee strategic forces subcommittee Chairman Rep. Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.) suggested one of the sticking points is the size of the proposed military bureaucracy. DoD is recommending having two four-star generals —  a chief of staff and a vice chief —  in charge of the Space Force. That would be in addition to another four-star commander for U.S. Space Command.

Speaking at CSIS on Wednesday, Cooper said adding more brass is the Pentagon’s “preferred way of doing things, which typically involves four-star generals.” Space is different, he said. What is needed are not more generals but space experts who might not necessarily be career military officers, said Cooper.

Cooper said a Space Force authorization would be drafted by his committee and expressed confidence the Senate will come onboard.

Shanahan said he has yet to sit down with House Armed Services Committee Chairman Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.) to go through DoD’s Space Force proposal. Smith has blasted the proposal for being “too expensive.” Shanahan said he has received similar feedback around Capitol Hill. “They worry about building bigger government. That part has been universal. And I don’t blame them.”

Just a few hours after Shanahan spoke at CSIS, news broke that the Pentagon’s inspector general will investigate allegations that Shanahan has used his office to promote Boeing, his former employer. A complaint filed by the watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics says Shanahan, while in office, reportedly made statements disparaging Boeing’s competitor Lockheed Martin.

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...