Congress

Senators remain skeptical of Space Force

Lawmakers agreed space defense is important, but many logistical questions remain

Marine Corps Gen. Joseph Dunford (center) is seen while protesters hold up signs before a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on April 11, 2019 in Washington, DC. The acting defense secretary is pitching the idea of creating a Space Force as a separate branch of the military to Congress. (Alex Wroblewski/Getty Images)

Top Pentagon officials on Thursday deployed old arguments to argue for a new military service within the Department of the Air Force focused specifically on space.

The United States risks losing its competitive edge in space to Russia and China unless the Pentagon stands up Space Force to defend extraterrestrial military and commercial interests, acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan told the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Joseph F. Dunford Jr., Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson and Strategic Command leader Gen. John Hyten testified alongside Shanahan in support of the White House’s Space Force proposal.

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President Donald Trump’s much-touted Space Force plan, and the arguments in support of it, in many ways mirror a 2017 House-passed proposal that would have established a Space Corps within the Air Force. The provision never made it into the final fiscal 2018 defense authorization bill.

As they were in 2017, Senate Armed Services members — particularly Democrats — remain skeptical that a new bureaucracy would strengthen the Pentagon’s position in space.

“My impression is you’re all doing a good job,” said Angus King, a Maine independent who caucuses with Democrats. “I understand the threat. But I don’t understand how adding a box to an organization chart is going to give us some kind of qualitative military edge.”

The United States has been outpacing adversaries in space, the witnesses agreed, because for years Russia and China lacked the ability to compete.

“We’ve been doing a good job in an environment where space has not been contested,” Hyten told King.

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But in recent years China has developed anti-satellite weapons capable of disabling U.S. satellites that provide the GPS capabilities used by air traffic controllers, power plants and smartphones. Additionally, Russian satellites in 2014 intercepted communications from European and U.S. military satellites.

Shanahan said he believes the Pentagon’s current approach to space is too disjointed to respond to those threats. The Pentagon’s space efforts are “disaggregated, resulting in a slow, bureaucratic approach,” he said.

The Pentagon, Shanahan argued, has five Senate-confirmed officials overseeing 10 space-focused organizations.

Hyten recalled a former Air Force chief of staff — whom Hyten didn’t name — telling him that it was difficult to walk around the Pentagon and not bump into someone who said they’re in charge of space.

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The Trump administration’s proposal would add a member to the Joint Chiefs of Staff who would report to the proposed Space Force undersecretary. Both would report to the Air Force secretary.

But Jack Reed, the panel’s top Democrat, criticized the expanse of the proposed new bureaucracy. The Rhode Island senator cited estimates that, of the proposed 16,500-person Space Force, 1,000 personnel would be headquarters-based. The 246,000-person Marine Corps, for comparison, has 1,200 headquarters-based personnel.

Others on the panel sought more specific answers on how Space Force would operate with related government agencies. For example, the administration’s proposal doesn’t describe how Space Force would interact with the National Reconnaissance Organization, an intelligence agency that works with the Pentagon on space threats.

Shanahan emphasized that NRO, under the White House plan, would remain independent and that the Pentagon would continue to work with the agency.

Issues like interagency cooperation and how Space Force would operate within the Pentagon are the questions that many senators want answered in detail before signing off on the proposal, and one reason many legislators remain skeptical.

All of the lawmakers, though, agreed with the space threat — the Pentagon’s main selling point for the proposal.

“In the past we have often affected change in the wake of failure,” Dunford said. “Today we have an opportunity, and I would argue an imperative, to change based on our ability to anticipate.”

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