CSIS’s Harrison Pours Cold Water on $12.9 Billion Space Force Cost Estimate

CSIS’s Harrison Pours Cold Water on $12.9 Billion Space Force Cost Estimate

Todd Harrison of the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) today sharply questioned the Air Force’s $12.9 billion cost estimate for establishing a Space Force and a unified combatant command.  An experienced defense budget analyst, Harrison went so far as to call it an example of “malicious compliance” where the highest possible estimate is being used to influence the debate.

Todd Harrison, CSIS. Screengrab.

Harrison, Director of CSIS’s Defense Budget Analysis and its Aerospace Security Project, spoke at a briefing today on a new CSIS report analyzing the final version of the FY2019 defense budget as agreed to by congressional conferees.  The Senate passed the conference report this week.  The House is expected to pass it next week.  The briefing was broadcast by C-SPAN.

The Space Force cost estimate is not included in the report, however, since it only became known in the past few days.  On Friday, Secretary of the Air Force (SecAF) Heather Wilson signed a memo laying out the service’s views on what the Space Force should be and how much it will cost — $12.9 billion over 5 years — that has been widely reported in the media since Monday.

Harrison displayed a table drawn from Wilson’s memo showing the Air Force’s cost projections.

Air Force cost estimate for a Space Force and unified combatant command. Source: CSIS, based on SecAF Wilson’s Sept. 14, 2018 memo.  Screengrab.

He explained that he and colleague Seamus Daniels discovered that the manpower cost estimates in the two right columns were calculated simply by multiplying the “additional manpower” figures in column 2 by $175,000, a figure presumably representing an average fully loaded cost of each person.

CSIS derivation of how the Air Force calculated the manpower costs. Source: CSIS. Screengrab.

Harrison found the methodology to be “not very sophisticated,” adding that the Air Force did not explain where it got the manpower figures from in the first place, even though almost the entire cost estimate is based on that data point.

He also wondered why a new building is needed.

The Air Force estimate assumes all of the construction costs will be realized in the first year, making the total for the first year alone $3.3 billion.

Wilson’s memo assumed a broad scope of organizations would be folded into the Space Force, not only components from the Pentagon and the Intelligence Community, but parts of NASA and NOAA.  “This is the broadest possible definition of how you could scope a Space Force that anyone could possibly conceive,” he argued, and “this is the highest estimate I think you could possibly come up with.”

Asked if he thought the Air Force was deliberately trying to produce an estimate so high that it would weaken support for a Space Force, he called it an example of “malicious compliance.”

Wilson and other high ranking Pentagon officials, including Secretary of Defense James Mattis, strongly opposed congressional efforts last year to create a Space Corps within the Air Force, much less President Trump’s idea this year to create a sixth military Department of the Space Force.  They fell in line behind the President in June only after he directed Gen. Joseph Dunford, Jr, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to “carry out that assignment.”

The President needs congressional approval to create and fund a new military department and cost is likely to be a critical factor in whether they agree or not.  Harrison said “this cost estimate really looks like they’re trying to come out with a high ball estimate to shift the debate to how expensive this is going to be.”

The Administration plans to include a formal proposal to create a new department and unified combatant command in the FY2020 budget request that should be sent to Congress in February.  The budget caps established in the 2011 Budget Control Act come back into force in FY2020.  Congress raised the caps earlier this year, but that was only for FY2018 and FY2019.

That will make FY2020 budget decisions much more difficult than they were this year.  If the Air Force estimate is correct and $3.3 billion in additional Pentagon funding will be needed just in FY2020, it could be quite a challenge to win congressional support no matter which party controls the House and Senate.

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