Lawmakers Increasingly Skeptical Over Pentagon's Space Force Proposal

Marine Corps Gen. Joe Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; Acting Defense Secretary Patrick M. Shanahan; Air Force Secretary Heather A. Wilson; and Air Force Gen. John E. Hyten, commander of U.S. Strategic Command, deliver testimony to the SASC on the establishment of a Space Force, April 11, 2019. (DOD/Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Dominique A. Pineiro)
Marine Corps Gen. Joe Dunford, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; Acting Defense Secretary Patrick M. Shanahan; Air Force Secretary Heather A. Wilson; and Air Force Gen. John E. Hyten, commander of U.S. Strategic Command, deliver testimony to the SASC on the establishment of a Space Force, April 11, 2019. (DOD/Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Dominique A. Pineiro)

Nearly one year since President Donald Trump unveiled he would push the Defense Department to create the sixth military branch for a space-only mission, lawmakers on Thursday indicated they remained skeptical of the Pentagon's latest proposal to stand up a U.S. Space Force.

The consensus from the officials, which included Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford, Strategic Command's Air Force Gen. John Hyten and Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson, was that in five years' time, there will more threats in space, possibly even beyond adversaries such as Russia or China who are rapidly expanding their space presence.

But after nearly three hours of conversation between top Pentagon officials and members of the Senate Armed Services committee, most lawmakers were still questioning how a new layer of bureaucracy and the costs associated with reorganization into a new branch of the armed forces would solve problems such as overspending, acquisition delays and overall national security challenges.

And they didn't always like the answers.

During his questioning, Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, said "I'm genuinely undecided, although as you can tell, I'm skeptical."

"None of the ideas that I have heard today clearly spell out how a Space Force leads to improve security in space," Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., later added. "This is particularly surprising to me since the proposal to leave the Space Force headquartered under the Air Force would still leave exactly one person responsible for acquiring hardware for both the Space Force and the Air Force."

Under the proposed chain of command for the Space Force, the Air Force secretary will be "responsible for training and equipping two separate and distinct military services: the U.S. Space Force and U.S. Air Force," according to the DoD. As in the Marine Corps, which exists under the Department of the Navy, a four-star general officer would oversee the Space Force and have a seat on the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Regarding that structure, Warren said it was not clear "how this solves anything."

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"In fact, it's hard to see how that person would be able to balance the competing needs of both services without a massive increase in overall spending," she said. "All I see is how a new force will create one more organization to ask Congress for money, and there is no reason to believe that adding an entirely new Space Force bureaucracy and pouring buckets more money into it is going to reduce our overall vulnerability in space."

The Pentagon is requesting $72.4 million in fiscal 2020 to bring together manpower and resources at the headquarters level and $2 billion over five years to fund the Space Force.

While Space Force will fall under the Department of the Air Force, according to a directive signed by President Donald Trump in February, the service so far has oversight only over Space Force's initial creation, allocating dollars out of its budget as the first step in implementing the DoD's long-term vision.

The Pentagon is asking Congress for another $150 million for the Space Development Agency (SDA) and $83.8 million for U.S. Space Command, which would be the military's 11th unified combatant command.

On Thursday, as the Pentagon has stressed before, the DoD leaders said they want the culture of Space Force to be unique, with its own rank structure and training, which would better identify their priorities and mission sets as separate from the other branches.

But some lawmakers didn't understand how that would necessarily improve space as a "warfighting domain," either.

"I'm having a real hard time understanding why we need this other agency," said Sen. Joe Manchin, D-West Virginia. "How are you going to change the culture when everyone is still going to come from the Air Force?"

Manchin said he was just "having a hard time" making sense of the proposal.

He continued, "If I had everything you all have at your disposal right now and the Air Force has the expertise and there are some flaws in it and you want more attention to it, we will give you what else you need. [Making it a separate branch] doesn't make any sense to me. I'm sorry."

As the missions grow and develop, so will the Space Force culture, Shanahan said.

"Restructuring this is a fundamental shift that now treats space as a [separate] domain. So if the culture is changed because the mission has changed, the leadership will change, the prioritization of the resources will change, and then our approach to developing capability will change," the acting secretary responded.

If Congress approves, the service will begin moving uniformed and civilian personnel to the new headquarters staff in fiscal 2020, with mission transfer and realignment of units occurring between fiscal 2021 and 2022, according to a strategic overview document the Pentagon unveiled last month.

The latest news comes after years of deliberations over how the Pentagon can better manage space operations. For example, other lawmakers began the dialogue in 2017, and had originally pushed the Air Force to stand up a branch for space within the service in hopes of taking adversarial threats in space more seriously.

Reps. Mike Rogers, R-Alabama, and William "Mac" Thornberry, R-Texas, first created language in the fiscal 2018 National Defense Authorization Act which would have required the service to stand up a "U.S. Space Corps." Rep. Jim Cooper, D-Tenn., joined the effort as well. It hit a roadblock months later, though, after Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein, Wilson and even then-Defense Secretary Jim Mattis publicly downplayed the idea, citing costliness and organizational challenges.

The Pentagon leaders on Thursday said only time will tell how a number of unresolved issues -- including incorporating the National Reconnaissance Office down the line, or how National Guard and Reserve members would fall into the structure, among other characteristics -- will be addressed.

"The real question before the committee is, do we stand up the organization and get the four-star leaders singularly focused on what the right organizational construct is, or do we wait for the perfect organizational construct to stand it up?" Dunford said. "Where I fell was, to move out and refine as we go, and the committee will have plenty of time to provide oversight."

He added, "So ... the first step to take in this next fiscal year would be stand up the organization, get the leadership in place and then begin to address these very important issues."

-- Oriana Pawlyk can be reached at Follow her on Twitter at @oriana0214.

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