WASHINGTON — The outgoing chairman of the House Armed Services Committee predicts there will be bipartisan support for a new military branch for space even in a Democratic-led House of Representatives. But the Trump administration should expect its Space Force proposal to be thoroughly vetted and challenged.
“Our job is not to just swallow whatever they send us,” Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Texas) told reporters on Capitol Hill on Tuesday.
Thornberry’s committee passed legislation in 2017 to establish a Space Corps within the Air Force, and the language made it into the House version of the National Defense Authorization Act for 2018. The Space Corps provision was not supported by the Senate and ultimately was removed from the NDAA.
“Sometimes I have to remind the folks at DoD that we started this first,” Thornberry said. “It did have large bipartisan support when it came out of the House.”
Congress may be more deeply divided but there is still some level of agreement about the need for national security space reforms, Thornberry said. “There has been consistent bipartisan support for greater emphasis on space, including organizational reform.” When the House debated the issue of whether to create a separate organization devoted to space, he added, “we gave all the reasons why that was important for the security of the country.”
Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan — who was deputy defense secretary and was named acting secretary following the resignation of James Mattis — has been the Pentagon’s point man for the space reorganization for more than a year. After President Trump directed DoD to stand up a new branch, Shanahan took the lead in drafting a legislative proposal to establish a Space Force. The plan will be submitted to Congress next month with the budget request for fiscal year 2020.
“I have had good dialogue with Deputy Secretary and now Acting Secretary Shanahan,” said Thornberry, who will be the ranking Republican on the HASC. In the 116th Congress, the committee will be led by Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.)
Thornberry said has not yet seen the final DoD proposal “but we’ve been having discussions all along.” He expects the committee will consider the administration’s plan but will develop its own proposal for the 2020 NDAA. “Our job is to dig down into it, ask questions and get other opinions, which I think we will do,” Thornberry said. “I am confident that what comes out will have bipartisan support.”
A space branch is something “we have been pushing,” Thornberry said. “Maybe we can drag the Senate along with us for a change.”
Smith, who voted for the Space Corps legislation, indicated in recent months that he would oppose the establishment of a Space Force. A spokesman for Smith said he “will review the 2020 budget when it arrives.”
Thornberry had kind words for the incoming chairman. “Adam and I have had a very good working relationship over the past four years,” he said. “I have every expectation that he will be a good and fair chairman and we’ll continue the bipartisan approach with which our committee has operated.”