Space Force legislative talks at impasse over personnel issues, cost concerns

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The House and Senate voted in support of a space service to be nested inside the Air Force, but much still remains unresolved.

WASHINGTON — The Senate and the House have passed competing versions of the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2020. Both give the Pentagon the green light to stand up a military space branch, although they diverge on the details.

The legislative action so far is being hailed by the Trump administration as a key step toward establishing the sixth branch of the armed forces.

“We’re working with members of Congress, and I’m proud to report legislation is already moving through the House and the Senate to establish the United States Space Force. And it’ll soon be a reality,” Vice President Mike Pence said last week in a speech to military service members at Vandenberg Air Force Base, California.

Although both chambers voted in support of a space service to be nested inside the Air Force, much still remains unresolved. The specifics of how the Space Force (or Space Corps, if the House proposal prevails) will be formed, staffed and funded continue to be negotiated in closed-door meetings on Capitol Hill and at the Pentagon.

The administration and the Senate are still far apart on multiple fronts. One key disagreement is over the basic organization. The administration is still pushing its original proposal to stand up a service as soon as Congress enacts it, and set it up in the mold of the other branches. DoD would create a Space Force headquarters in the Pentagon, to be led by a four-star chief of staff, a four-star vice chief of staff and an undersecretary of the Air Force for space.

The Senate Armed Services Committee’s response was “no so fast.” Instead, it directed a one-year transition during which the Space Force would be run by the commander of U.S. Space Command Gen. John Raymond, who would be dual-hatted as commander of the Space Force and of U.S. Space Command. After the one-year transition, DoD would submit to Congress a plan to give the Space Force its own commander who would be a member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Defense Department and Air Force officials leading Space Force negotiations have been engaged in talks with congressional staff. The most recent meeting was with Senate Armed Services Committee majority and minority staff on Friday. According to Capitol Hill sources, neither side was ready to compromise and everyone held their ground.

Defense and Air Force leaders involved in the space legislative talks include Acting Air Force Secretary Matt Donovan, Air Force Space Command Vice Commander Lt. Gen. D.T. Thompson, Assistant Secretary of Defense for Homeland Defense and Global Security, Kenneth Rapuano; and Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Space Policy Steve Kitay.

The committee appears to be taking a hard stance against the DoD proposal which they criticize for being focused on “billets” and bureaucracy and for not addressing issues they consider critical such as dysfunction in space acquisition programs, these sources said. The Senate bill will not be changed, committee leaders told DoD officials, and members of the SASC remain insistent that the incremental approach they advocate is best for DoD, these sources said.

During the Friday meeting at the Pentagon, these sources noted, committee leaders were insistent that the phased timeline was the only acceptable option to SASC members who worry about unchecked growth and rampant costs.

The exchange on Friday is consistent with what SASC staff members told reporters on Capitol Hill last month. Staffers said the Pentagon’s Space Force proposal is unacceptable as it essentially requests a blank check and license to hire people and to transfer resources and people from other services. One staffer said the committee “tried to accommodate the intent of what they were trying to do but use existing structures … and Congress still maintains oversight. Over the first year they’ll be here doing a lot of briefings.”

The Senate’s approach received a key endorsement last week from Gen. Mark Milley, president Trump’s pick for chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He told the SASC on Thursday that the Senate approach puts DoD “on the right track” to bring a Space Force to fruition. Milley’s statements “undercut anyone from DoD who would try to make a different case,” a source said.

Task Force ‘Tang-O’

Before she stepped down in May, former Air Force secretary Heather Wilson assigned Maj. Gen. Clinton Crozier the job of laying out a plan to stand up a Space Force once Congress authorized it. Crozier developed a blueprint that aligns with the Pentagon’s proposal. It would create a headquarters with a staff of 200 — 160 billets and 40 detailed from other organizations. Of the 160 billets, 130 would be filled by Air Force personnel, 20 by the Army and 10 by the Navy.

Representatives of Air Force Space Command more recently were brought in to contribute ideas on how the Space Force could be organized. A team from AFSPC formed a self-designated “Task Force Tang-O,” a play on American astronauts’ preferred beverage when they go to space. Briefing charts developed by the task force call the Space Force the “Guardians of the Ultimate High Ground” and propose multiple options to build the headquarters and field organizations.

AFSPC members of Task Force Tang-O are enthusiastic about a Space Force and are eager to contribute, sources said.

The Senate, however, is deeply skeptical of any organizational charts produced by the Pentagon. According to one of Crozier’s Powerpoint briefings obtained by SpaceNews, the Air Force makes the case that it will maximize the use of existing resources to staff and equip the Space Force but also raises the issue of “billet growth” as the new service gets stood up and new job requirements emerge.

SASC staff members have argued this is precisely why the Senate is advocating a piecemeal approach. Congress for years has pushed to curtail growth in the general officer ranks and has capped the number of generals each service is allowed. If the Air Force is not allowed to bring in generals from other services to the Space Force, it might have to ask for more billets to be authorized, a prospect the Senate wants to avoid.

Acting Air Force Secretary Matt Donovan told SpaceNews in a July 3 interview that he would support the idea of a “lean” Space Force headquarters that is not a mirror image of the other services.

Sources familiar with the SASC discussions said Donovan has made that point to the committee but that the argument backfired, as SASC staffers questioned why the lean approach was good for the Space Force and not for the other services.

Another suggestion offered by the Air Force was for the SASC to remove the proposed addition of an Assistant Secretary of Defense for Space Policy from the NDAA and shift those jobs to Space Force billets. But the committee said that option was not on the table, the sources said. If the ASD Space Policy were eliminated, the SASC would still not authorize more people for the Space Force.

“That tells you the mindset of the Senate,” said one source. “They do not want a big new thing to pop up and grow.” The SASC continues to point out that it has not heard a convincing argument from DoD or the Air Force for why they need more people to do what the Air Force does currently in space. If Air Force Space Command is rebranded as the Space Force, SASC officials argued at the meeting on Friday, nothing in the NDAA would prevent AFSPC from moving people from Colorado Springs to the Pentagon to form the Space Force headquarters.

The SASC also remains insistent on reorganizing space acquisitions. The Senate NDAA changes the position of the principal assistant to the secretary of the Air Force for space — currently held by John Stopher who is scheduled to step down on Friday — to a Senate-confirmed post titled principal assistant to the secretary of the Air Force for space acquisition and integration. The Air Force leadership opposed this measure because it would reallocate the space portfolio currently managed by Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Acquisition Will Roper to the new position.

NDAA end game

With the Senate firmly holding its ground, DoD’s best hope might lie in the House. The administration is said to be happier with the House version of the space reorganization even though it proposes a Space Corps rather than a Space Force. The White House on July 9 issued a 10-page Statement of Administration Policy that objects to many provisions in the House NDAA but minimally challenges the Space Corps proposal.

In the larger scheme of things, the Space Force conceivably could become a bargaining chip for House Democratic leaders to get the administration and the Republican-led Senate to compromise on the more contentious items in the House NDAA, such as the top-line funding for defense, language to limit Trump’s war powers and restrictions on the development of nuclear weapons.

Sources familiar with the ongoing negotiations said DoD and the White House might have to rethink their Space Force strategy and view it as a long game. For some people in the White House, having the Space Force in the NDAA is enough of a political victory even if the specifics are not agreeable to DoD. Milley and other officials have suggested that an authorization in any form would be helpful to get the Space Force a foot in the door, and then it will be up to DoD to carry that forward.

How does this get resolved?

With the Senate, the House and DoD seemingly far apart on many issues, the path forward is murky.

Jamie Morin, executive director of the Aerospace Corporation’s Center for Space Policy and Strategy, follows the Space Force debate closely but is not directly involved in the legislative talks. His take is that the NDAA impasse is a symptom of a larger issue, which is a lack of clarity on why exactly a Space Force is needed.

‘What you are seeing are divergent approaches on how to move forward on space organization because there’s not complete agreement on the problem they’re trying to solve,” Morin told SpaceNews on Monday.

Space Force supporters have cited a number of problems in military space that need fixing. “Is it acquisition? What we buy and how we buy it? Is the problem advocacy for resources? Is it human capital?” Morin said. “Is the problem one of tighter integration of space capabilities into a joint fight? Is it a lack of realistic operational training?”

“Most of the advocates of change point to one or more of those as being the problem we’re trying to solve,” he said. “The reality is that there is tension between all of those things, and more so when there’s limited resources.”

The challenge for the administration is that it is trying to argue for a “lean approach” to set up the new service with minimal added cost, which is helpful to get support from Capitol Hill. The problem is that once a new service is created, it “actively competes for resources,” said Morin. “The committees are wrestling with that.”

In the end, he said, “It won’t be a ‘split the difference’ solution because the philosophies are so different.”