Space Force in for a rough ride

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Space Development Agency a big flashpoint in DoD reorganization

This article originally appeared in the Sept. 10, 2018 issue of SpaceNews magazine.

As the White House forges on with plans to create a new military branch for space, political and bureaucratic headwinds appear to be gaining strength.

A key hurdle is the chaotic fashion in which the reorganization is proceeding. U.S. President Donald Trump caught the Pentagon off guard when he ordered the standup of a Space Force during a June 18 meeting of the National Space Council. “We are going to have the Air Force and we are going to have the Space Force. Separate but equal. It is going to be something. So important,” Trump said.

The unconventional rollout complicates the already difficult task of carving out pieces of the Air Force and possibly the intelligence community to bring a new military service into existence.

Vice President Mike Pence is overseeing the reorganization from the White House while a team at the Pentagon tries to figure out what’s next. Few specifics are known yet on what a Space Force would do or cost, or whether it would have equal status to the Army, Air Force and Navy.

Defense Secretary James Mattis was not onboard with the idea of a separate service for space but changed course after the commander in chief issued the order to get it done.

“We are working now with Congress on our way ahead with regard to needed legislation for a separate department,” Mattis told reporters Aug. 28.

“The DoD will provide Congress with a plan for a Space Force,” said retired Air Force Maj. Gen. Thomas Taverney, who served as vice commander of Air Force Space Command. “This is clearly an exciting time,” he told SpaceNews.

“I think we have to be wide-eyed about the kind of resources” that would be needed. -- U.S. Air Force Gen. Paul Selva, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Credit: DoD photo by U.S. Army Sgt. James K. McCann
“I think we have to be wide-eyed about the kind of resources” that would be needed.
— U.S. Air Force Gen. Paul Selva, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Credit: DoD photo by U.S. Army Sgt. James K. McCann

Officials privately worry about the potential chaos that would result from the breakup of the Air Force. Critics of the president’s decision, meanwhile, have characterized the Space Force as a solution in search of a problem; a shiny object that will consume disproportionate attention and resources.

The cost of setting up and maintaining a Space Force — and whether Congress will fund it — are huge unknowns. The notion embraced by the White House that moving people and facilities from one department to another should not add significant overhead costs seems unrealistic. A new service is not going to be “resource neutral,” Gen. Paul Selva, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told a gathering on Capitol Hill. “I think we have to be wide-eyed about the kind of resources” that would be needed to support a sixth branch of the military.

The process could get more contentious as the process moves forward. While Trump as commander in chief runs the military, only Congress has the power to stand up a new service. A year ago, a proposal to form a subordinate Space Corps under the Department of the Air Force gained momentum and passed the House but was blocked by the Senate. The administration’s forthcoming proposal to stand up a Space Force independent from the Air Force is expected to be taken up in the 2019 legislative cycle.

It will be up to Congress to sort through the multiple recommendations coming from the Pentagon and the White House. “Inconsistencies between these various executive branch proposals have puzzled some observers and Congress could play a major role in adjudicating among them,” said the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service in a report.

The bulk of the work will fall on the House Armed Services strategic forces subcommittee. It will try to mesh the president’s vision and the Pentagon’s reorganization proposals into language to be considered in the 2020 National Defense Authorization Act. Any bill also will need backing from appropriators who would have to approve funding for the Space Force. The Senate Armed Services Committee has not in the past been in favor of a separate service. The committee’s chairman, Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), told reporters recently that Senate Armed Services will be ready to debate the issue next year.

The bipartisan support that a bill to establish a subordinate Space Corps commanded in the House in 2017 is unlikely to repeat in 2019, even if Republicans manage to retain control.

One of the wild cards is what role Strategic Forces Chairman Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Ala.) will have in the next Congress. He was the prime force behind the Space Corps legislation, but term limits will force him from the subcommittee chairmanship even if Republicans retain their majority in the House. Sources said he likely will stay on the House Armed Services Committee. The top Democrat on the strategic forces subcommittee, Rep. Jim Cooper (Tenn.), has been a staunch advocate of separating space from the Air Force, but he worries that the issue has become too divisive since Trump seized it. In an interview with The Washington Post, Cooper said Trump has followed a “bull-in-china-shop approach” to get a Space Force. “He’s breaking a lot of things unnecessarily” creating “a lot of upheaval” for the Pentagon to handle.

The House Armed Services Committee’s ranking Democrat, Rep. Adam Smith (Wash.), also was in favor of a subordinate Space Corps but has reservations about an independent Space Force. The Trump Make America Great Again Committee, which is raising money for the 2020 presidential election, emailed supported last month asking them to vote on a half-dozen amateurish Space Force logos, including one that reads “Mars Awaits.” Smith wasn’t amused. “It is extremely inappropriate for President Trump to politicize the U.S. military by having his campaign ask supporters to choose a logo for a proposed branch of the armed forces,” he said in a statement.

Republicans, too, have concerns. According to a recording obtained by The Washington Post, Rep. Steve Knight (R-Calif.) told a private gathering in Los Angeles that he does not see the need for a Space Force that would “cannibalize the Air Force.”

Does space need its own voice?

Terry Virts, a retired NASA astronaut and former Air Force fighter pilot, was an early supporter of a Space Corps for reasons that have nothing to do with politics. “My view is that space should have its own independent service,” he toldSpaceNews. “The military has been doing space for many decades, and doing it well, but at the end of the day Air Force Space Command reports to a chief of staff who is a pilot and a secretary who runs a service whose job is to fly airplanes,” Virts added. “The space domain, culture, and procedures are unique and unrelated to air, land or sea.”

Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Ala.) proposed a U.S. Space Corps during a 2016 speech at the Space Symposium in Colorado Springs. He predicted his proposal wouldn’t be popular with Air Force space officials. Credit: Tom Kimmell for SpaceNews
Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Ala.) proposed a U.S. Space Corps during a 2016 speech at the Space Symposium in Colorado Springs. He predicted his proposal wouldn’t be popular with Air Force space officials. Credit: Tom Kimmell for SpaceNews

A Space Force would be the natural next step in the evolution of the U.S. armed services, he said. “In the long run it makes sense to organize, train and equip around the space domain.” Air Force Space Command has done a good job, he said, “But if you talk to the captains and colonels, they will tell you, ‘Why do I work for a pilot who has never had an assignment in space? The Air Force has been a good steward of space. But if you have people who work for an independent secretary of the Space Force, they will start thinking differently.”

Taverney said there is a legitimate argument to be made that only a separate service can devote proper attention to space. “Whether it’s a Space Force or something else, it is absolutely critical to have someone who thinks about this day and night that can do what ifs in an ongoing basis,” he told SpaceNews. The nation has to be prepared to deal with a potential attack to its space assets, he said. “Even if you’re surprised, you need to be able to move a whole lot faster than the current system allows you to.”

The Pentagon in an Aug. 9 report laid out a plan to “marshal resources” toward the goal of standing up a Space Force. The proposal echoes the language in the Trump administration’s national security strategy about space increasingly becoming a “contested” battlefront where adversaries like China and Russia will challenge U.S. dominance.

One of the proposals in the report is to re-establish a U.S. Space Command as the military’s 11th combatant command. Space Command originally was stood up in 1985 but eliminated in 2002 to free up resources to create U.S. Northern Command. Congress in the 2019 NDAA passed language that mandates a sub-unified U.S. Space Command under U.S. Strategic Command. The Pentagon said it should be a full-up command.

It is worth noting that, for practical purposes, the concept of a joint combatant command already was put into action in December when Air Force Space Command took on the role of Joint Force Space Component Commander under U.S. Strategic Command, with responsibility for the employment of all joint space forces.

The Pentagon also recommended establishing a “Space Operations Force” of career space experts to improve space warfighting skills across the services. This organization, along with U.S. Space Command and a new Space Development Agency presumably would be part of a Space Force if the new service comes to fruition.

The real problem is acquisitions

The Space Development Agency is being pitched as a key piece of any future Space Force. According to the Pentagon report, it would help “accelerate space technology” and “rapidly develop and field next-generation capabilities.”

Government and industry sources said the notion of a Space Development Agency was conceived by senior Pentagon officials — and endorsed by Rogers. One idea that has been floated is to base the agency in Rogers’ home state of Alabama.

The Space Development Agency by all accounts has become a flashpoint.

Champions of the agency include the executive secretary of the National Space Council Scott Pace, Deputy Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan and Undersecretary of Defense for Research and Engineering Michael Griffin. Shanahan and Griffin have grown frustrated by the Pentagon’s slow procurement process and want to see dramatic changes in the acquisition of space technology.

Until more is known about the mission and makeup of the Space Development Agency, it is being viewed as a threat to existing acquisition fiefdoms.

The Trump Make America Great Again Committee, President Trump’s campaign fundraising operation, asked supporters to vote for a Space Force patch. Credit: Trump Make America Great Again Committee
The Trump Make America Great Again Committee, President Trump’s campaign fundraising operation, asked supporters to vote for a Space Force patch. Credit: Trump Make America Great Again Committee

“We still don’t know what the Space Development Agency will do,” Taverney said. There is broad agreement that faster innovation is needed in the military, he added. “Our adversaries are moving technology in three to four years. It takes us seven to nine years. We simply need to go faster.”

It is unclear if the Space Development Agency would take over some of the current functions of the Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center, or SMC. Taverney does not see overlap, however. “SMC acquires systems according to the rules of the road they are given, and if you want to do next-generation systems, their hands are kind of tied.”

Taverney argues that if the Space Development Agency had to play by the same rules as SMC, nothing would really change. “Going faster has to do more with the acquisition authorities than it has to do with the organization,” he said. Whether it’s a new or an existing agency, “what you need is a single line of authority and accountability, leaders who have the budget authority, operations control, ability to put requirements and acquisition authorities.”

If a Space Development Agency did materialize, the military space community could end up with four acquisition agencies, the other three being SMC, the Army’s Space and Missile Defense Command and the National Reconnaissance Office.

“For the Space Force to be a true Space Force you carefully need look at what it will include,” he said. “Clearly, SMDC, NRO and the Missile Defense Agency need to be considered in addition to the obvious U.S. Space Command. How would we combine the processes and the resources to meet everyone’s needs and the ability to go fast. I think that’s a big part of what they have to do.”

Because a new service would have to be formed with existing portions of the Air Force, the Army and the intelligence community, the White House has been insistent that the Pentagon appoint an assistant secretary of defense for space to manage the bureaucratic fight. Pence said this would be the first step toward a fully independent Space Force with its own secretary.

If all goes according to plan, the Pentagon could nominate an assistant secretary in early 2019 to coincide with the release of the budget submission. The new assistant secretary would have to be confirmed by the Senate. Regardless of which party is in control of Congress by then, the Space Force faces an uphill fight.