Thornberry: Pentagon will not have its way in space force legislation

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Rep. Mac Thornberry: Whatever the final language that comes out of conference, it will likely not include many of the items that DoD has asked for.

WASHINGTON — The National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal year 2020 is now headed to a conference committee where the Senate and House versions will be reconciled. Among the many items to be negotiated is the establishment of a military service for space.

“Preliminary discussions, at least for the low-hanging fruit, will start in August,” said the top Republican on the House Armed Services Committee Rep. Mac Thornberry. Committee leaders hope to have the NDAA conference report completed before Oct. 1, Thornberry told reporters on Wednesday on Capitol Hill.

Thornberry said he is confident there is bipartisan backing on both sides to enact a U.S. Space Force (or U.S. Space Corps, as the House bill calls it). But whatever final language comes out of conference, it will likely not include many of the items that DoD has asked for, Thornberry said.

The Trump administration on Feb. 19 issued a policy memo that calls for the establishment of a Space Force under the Department of the Air Force. Many lawmakers supported the idea but did not like the legislative proposal that DoD submitted, Thornberry said. “The relatively simple proposal, as I understand it, that the White House sent to DoD had a bunch of stuff added to it that not many people support,” he said. “So I think we will have come out of conference a lean space force designed to meet the objectives that we all want to achieve.” Many members object to DoD’s proposal because it would create a large military bureaucracy and seeks broad authorities to transfer people from other services.

Thornberry’s comments echo the criticism that other lawmakers in both the House and Senate have lobbed at the Pentagon’s recommendations. Thornberry also pointed out that DoD has not spoken with a single voice on the matter, and that within DoD people don’t seem to agree on what they want.

“We’ll listen to what they say,” Thornberry said. “But there’s a lot of different voices saying things coming out of DoD, depending on where you are.”

In recent hearings, for example, defense officials offered different views on what DoD should ask Congress with regard to a space service.

In his confirmation hearing July 11, Joint Chiefs chairman nominee Gen. Mark Milley said he supported the Senate version of the NDAA, which calls for a phased approach to creating a space force, and requires a one-year transition period.

Defense Secretary Mark Esper in written testimony in advance of his confirmation hearing July 16 expressed concerns about the Senate bill. “Although the SASC language provides key elements to elevating the space domain, such as the four-star military leadership with membership on the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the direct report to the Secretary of the Air Force, I urge the committee to provide the necessary technical legislative authority to establish the Space Force as the sixth branch of the Armed Forces within the Department of the Air Force. I also request the committee to provide the department with the necessary resources to ensure its success.”

Deputy defense secretary nominee David Norquist in his confirmation hearing July 24 also was critical of the Senate bill in written testimony. “The Senate has clearly recognized the strategic shift necessary to ensure our space forces are postured to compete, deter, and win in future conflict. However, the Senate bill’s provisions lack several key elements necessary to establish the Space Force as the sixth branch of our Armed Forces,” Norquist wrote. “Additionally, the Secretary of Defense should have the authority to transfer forces, missions, and organizations, such as the Space Development Agency, on the timing and tempo necessary for mission effectiveness.”

The Trump administration on July 9 issued a 10-page statement listing objections to the House version of the NDAA. On the space service, the administration said the House should “consider authorizing the secretary of defense to begin transferring appropriate Air Force and non-Air Force personnel to the space branch in fiscal year 2020.”

Thornberry said the Pentagon is going to have to live with whatever Congress legislates. He noted that Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Ala.) — one of the sponsors of the Space Corps amendment that went into the House NDAA — compared the space force to a Christmas tree that initially will be bare. “You’re just putting it in the stand this year. Then the lights and the ornaments and the tinsel and all that stuff will be added,” Thornberry said. “It’ll flesh out over time. We have to get it started. We have bipartisan agreement on that. But we may not have everything that some people in DoD want.”