Space Corps Crashes to Earth in Negotiated Defense Bill

A composite of the DMSP Block 5D-3 satellite. (U.S. Air Force image)
A composite of the DMSP Block 5D-3 satellite. (U.S. Air Force image)

The Pentagon won't have to create a militarized space unit -- known as Space Corps -- under the negotiated version of the Fiscal 2018 National Defense Authorization Act, congressional staffers said Wednesday.

In the latest version of the defense policy bill, lawmakers removed language requiring such an overhaul of the Air Force's space mission, but still required a study of the idea and also backed changes to the management of the space cadre, the staffers said during a background briefing on Capitol Hill.

That means the newly created Air Force A-11 Deputy Chief of Staff for Space Operations directorate -- touted by Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson as an important change in the wake of a push from Capitol Hill to create a Space Corps -- is no longer necessary, the aides said.

"We eliminated the principal adviser for space, we eliminated the Defense Space Council and we eliminated the A-11," a staff member said.

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Wilson heads two of the three positions: defense space council on the Joint Staff and principal advisor for space reporting to Defense Secretary Jim Mattis.

The Air Force had nominated Air Force Space Command Vice Commander Maj. Gen. David Thompson for the A-11 position. The Senate confirmed Thompson for a bump in rank on Oct. 31. It’s unclear what his future holds.

The responsibilities for the three positions are expected to be shifted to the portfolio of the deputy defense secretary, Patrick Shanahan.

Conferees said the bill would make it easier for military officials to decide on space-related matters by developing a model for the Air Force's space cadre based on the Navy's naval reactor community, by streamlining the acquisition process, and by de-layering decision-making entities, the official said.

It wasn't immediately clear why key lawmakers like Rep. William "Mac" Thornberry, a Republican from Texas and the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, and Rep. Mike Rogers, a Republican from Alabama and a member of the panel, apparently agreed to abandon the language to create a new Space Corps.

Those lawmakers have criticized the Pentagon and Air Force for being shortsighted on space as a war domain.

Last month, Thornberry told reporters that, culturally, there needs to be separation from a "one service" mentality of honing space since it belongs to the joint force.

"It's just a different domain than the Air Force. There came a natural evolution where the Air Force had to evolve out of the Army Air Corps," Thornberry said during a briefing at the Heritage Foundation, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank. "We are at or past the point where space has to evolve past the air domain into a domain on its own."

The Air Force has overseen space missions since the mid-1950s.

The chairman's comments came months after the House Armed Services Committee voted 60-1 in June to move forward with a separate Space Corps branch within the fiscal 2018 defense authorization bill even after Air Force officials and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis attempted to put the kibosh on it.

Organizational changes don't solve everything, Thornberry said. But they do help with the acquisition process, and "how we develop the warfighting techniques and practices in space," he said.

Separately, Wilson has made it her objective to elevate the Air Force's space mission. It's because space is now "at a turning point" not just in the offensive versus defensive operational discussion, but also in how many players are entering the space domain, she said last month.

"There are two things happening at the same time: a significant reduction in the cost of launch. At the same time, payloads are getting much, much smaller -- the miniaturization of payloads. So you put those two things together, and you will see a lot more companies, countries and even individuals in space," Wilson told audiences last month at the Center for Strategic & International Studies in Washington, D.C.

Some actors will enter space for peaceful purposes -- some will not, Wilson said. The United States "has to assume" there will be "both kinds of actors" in space, she said.

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