In an April 9 keynote speech at the 35th Space Symposium, Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan laid out his most forceful case to date for the establishment of a new military branch for space.
Shanahan argued that standing up a Space Force — along with a U.S. Space Command and a Space Development Agency — is what it will take to ensure the United States stays ahead of adversaries that are advancing their space capabilities.
He cast the issue as a matter of both national and economic security.
Most of the substance of Shanahan’s remarks were about the Space Development Agency, a new organization stood up March 12 and led by former DARPA official Fred Kennedy. Shanahan has made the new agency one of his signature issues. The work of the SDA is not just important to national security but also to the nation’s space economy, he said.
“In addition to the threat, we also see thousands of satellites going into space in the next few years as the cost of launch continues to come down and space technology rapidly advances,” he said. “This will unlock new opportunities and increase the importance of space for the American economy,” Shanahan said.
“Unfortunately, the department is not moving fast enough to stay ahead.”
The Space Development Agency is “what I call the pacing element of our plan,” he said. “The SDA will focus on developing and delivering the next generation of space-based communications and Earth observation, while existing organizations continue their current efforts. Further, the SDA will help consolidate space efforts so resources are invested more efficiently, he said. Currently, the U.S. military relies on a patchwork of satellite systems, for example, in addition to spot-market buys of commercial bandwidth. “The result is we have deployed over 130 different types of wideband terminals, in addition to narrowband and protected satcom terminals.”
SDA will “harness the innovation and investment that is taking place in commercial space,” said Shanahan. “DoD must leverage the private sector investment. … Our space R&D needs to include our own research and development as well as ‘rip off and deploy’ commercial market innovations.”
He said SDA will “judiciously combine commercial innovations with exquisite capabilities unique to DoD.”
On the Space Force, he said it is necessary to “grow our margin of dominance in space to protect our $19 trillion dollar economy and ensure access for our warfighter.s”The United States, said Shanahan, is in an era of “great power competition, and the next major conflict may be won or lost in space.”
Shanahan mentioned China and Russia as space rivals that are developing powerful anti-satellite weapons that they could aim at U.S. spacecraft. “The PLA [China’s People’s Liberation Army] is also deploying directed energy weapons, and we expect them to field a ground-based laser system aimed at low Earth orbit space sensors by next year.”
A centralized focus on space under a dedicated space branch is necessary, he said. The Pentagon cannot confront the contested space environment with a dozen different organizations, he said. A single senior leader in the Pentagon should be accountable for space.
SASC hearing April 11
Shanahan’s speech was a warm-up act of sorts two days before he is scheduled to testify before the Senate Armed Services Committee. Some lawmakers remain skeptical that a new military service is needed, and expect DoD officials at the April 11 to explain how a Space Force would solve lagging innovation and disjointed management of space programs rather than add bureaucracy.
Shanahan, in his speech, that the solution requires all three legs: a service, a combatant command and a space agency to develop technology faster than current organizations.
U.S. Space Command will focus on space war doctrine and strategies whereas the Space Force will “build a professional development system that recruits technical talent, educates them in space from the beginning, and provides a clear promotion path,” said Shanahan.
He also addressed on the key objections that members of Congress have raised, which is the cost of a new branch and the additional bureaucracy it brings. “By creating the new service inside the Air Force, the additional cost is less than one-tenth of one percent of the DoD budget,” he said. “The Space Force will cost about $1.50 per American per year.”