Cooper Optimistic Congress Will Approve Space Force, But Will it Solve the Problem?

Cooper Optimistic Congress Will Approve Space Force, But Will it Solve the Problem?

Acting Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan today championed the need for a Space Force to protect our $19 trillion economy and the space systems our military depends upon.  Rep. Jim Cooper (D-TN), a key member of the House Armed Services Committee (HASC), expressed optimism that Congress will approve a Space Force in some form this year.  A major rationale is to focus responsibility for and raise the priority of national security space activities within DOD. Cristina Chaplain of the Government Accountability Office (GAO), which identified as many as 60 military space stakeholder organizations, wondered if it will solve the problem.

Patrick Shanahan, Acting Secretary of Defense, speaking at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, March 20, 2019. Screengrab.

At a Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) symposium today, they and others discussed the FY2020 budget request for national security space and associated policy issues, especially the Space Force.

First as Deputy Secretary of Defense and now in his current position, Shanahan is the chief architect of the Trump Administration’s proposal to create a Space Force as part of the Air Force, as well as a unified combatant command, U.S. Space Command (USSPACECOM), and a Space Development Agency (SDA).

He focused on how space capabilities are foundational not only to U.S. military dominance, but to the American economy, which relies on satellites like the GPS positioning, navigation and timing system even though the public may not realize it.  “We want somebody every day to think about are we defending the economy” and ensuring “military systems are protected.”

He conceded that some in Congress are concerned about creating a new, costly bureaucracy “and I don’t blame them,” but insisted that the Space Force will be relatively small — 15,000-20,000 people when it is fully operational — and cost just $2 billion over 5 years.  Acknowledging that Congress needs to be persuaded, he stressed that “the compelling piece here is the $19 trillion economy and the military run on space and we need to have confidence that we are protecting that.”

Rep. Jim Cooper (D-TN), speaking at Center for Strategic and International Studies, March 20, 2019. Screengrab.

Cooper, who chairs HASC’s Strategic Forces Subcommittee, is optimistic that Congress will indeed say yes at this “magic moment for our country.”  Cooper was part of the bipartisan HASC leadership team that won House passage of a Space Corps as part of the Air Force two years ago.  Although the Senate did not agree, it sparked the debate that led to President Trump’s call for a Space Force as a separate military department, which now has come full circle to do almost exactly what HASC wanted, but naming it Space Force instead of Space Corps.

Calling Trump’s original proposal for a new military department “over the top,” Cooper said the proposal that has now been presented to Congress is “about as close to our original proposal as you can get,” but uses terminology more acceptable to DOD and the White House.  Even though HASC Chairman Adam Smith (D-WA) has said he plans to make changes to the Trump proposal, Cooper feels the prospects for success “could hardly be brighter.”  He called the 5-year $2 billion pricetag “dust” in the Pentagon budget, which he expects will clear Congress at a $733 billion level for FY2020.  The Space Force request for FY2020 is just $72.4 million.

GAO’s 2016 report identifying “persistent fragmentation in management and oversight” of defense space acquisitions was part of the impetus for the HASC Space Corps proposal.  Chaplain led that study and has years of experience at GAO in analyzing and auditing military space programs.  She was cautious about whether Space Force and the other two components of the reorganization effort — USSPACECOM and SDA — will solve the problem.

Cristina Chaplain, Director, Acquisition and Sourcing Management, Government Accountability Office (GAO), speaking at Center for Strategic and International Studies, March 20, 2019. Screengrab.

A common refrain from Shanahan and other DOD officials is that U.S. military space efforts, especially technology development, need to “go fast” to keep ahead of adversaries like China and Russia.  Chaplain cautioned that when that was tried in the past, “we had a lot of problems because oversight and insight went out the window.”  The challenges facing space programs are “bigger than ever” and the proposed reorganization “is just the beginning of a process that will take a long time.”  As for GAO’s list of the 60 stakeholder organizations, “I’m not quite sure what’s going away. … I see some things being added.”

She listed four changes that are needed: reduced fragmentation, increased priority for space, protecting funding for space, and a focus on innovation and culture change.  The pending proposal addresses some of those, “but we’ll see what can be done.”

Chaplain will testify to the Senate Armed Services Strategic Forces Subcommittee next week on military space operations.  Joining her at the witness table will be Gen. Jay Raymond, Commander, Air Force Space Command; Lt. Gen. John Thompson, Commander, Space and Missile Systems Center, Air Force Space Command; and Kenneth Capuano, Assistant Secretary of Defense for Homeland Defense and Global Security.

Shanahan will also be on Capitol Hill next week testifying to HASC along with Gen. Joseph Dunford, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Shanahan said today that he has not yet “walked through the proposal” with HASC Chairman Smith.  The topic most assuredly will come up during the hearing.

As CSIS expert Todd Harrison said at the end of today’s event, DOD “needs to clarify to Congress” how it will reorient and modernize space capabilities.  Using a space analogy, he implored — don’t “fire the thrusters first and then orient the satellite.”

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