Senators Unsure About Need for Space Force

Senators Unsure About Need for Space Force

Almost two dozen members of the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) quizzed four top military and civilian Pentagon leaders for more than two hours today about why a Space Force is needed and how much it will cost.  In the end, there was no consensus from either Republicans or Democrats. Most seem to remain unconvinced that it will add value instead of just more bureaucracy, but are open to further discussions.

The committee will mark up its version of the FY2020 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) beginning May 20, so DOD and the White House have that much time to make their case.  President Trump is proposing to create a Space Force as part of the Air Force to better manage and implement military space activities.

Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Oklahoma), chairing Senate Armed Services Committee hearing April 11, 2019. Screengrab.

SASC Chairman Jim Inhofe’s (R-Oklahoma) opening remarks accurately conveyed the situation: “This is one of the rare times when we’re having a hearing where people haven’t made up their minds.”  It was true at the end of the hearing as well.

Inhofe said when he first heard about the proposal he asked two questions — what will the organization fix and how much will it cost — and while the Administration has offered an answer regarding cost, he still wants to know what it will fix.  He also wondered why the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) would not be part of the Space Force.

Those were among the myriad questions the other members had as well.

Acting Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford, Jr., Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson, and Commander of U.S. Strategic Command Gen. John Hyten laid out their rationales, as they have done in many other venues.  The answers did not appear to fully satisfy many of the Senators.

Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) even joked that she may be an outlier on the committee because “I totally appreciate why you need a Space Force.  I get it.” (Blackburn’s fellow Tennessean, Rep. Jim Cooper (D), is one of the leaders in the House in this effort.)

Others were not so sure.  Their major concern is that the Space Force will be just a bureaucracy, another box on an organization chart, not a solution to the problem of the increasing threat to U.S. space systems by China and Russia.

At times, even the witnesses did not seem to be in agreement.  To the question of why NRO would not be integrated into the Space Force, Shanahan said that would be needed in the future, but would be too time consuming to pursue now.  Wilson, however, pointed to the “deep connection” between the Air Force and NRO and said a “structural change on an organizational chart” may not be needed.

Sen. Angus King (I-Maine) asked the “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” question.  “We’re dominant in space” now, so how will “adding a box to an organization chart give us a qualitative military edge? … I’m genuinely undecided” but “skeptical.”  Hyten replied that the U.S. has been doing well so far, but the environment of space has changed from uncontested to contested. Now a U.S. Space Command and a Space Force are needed that will focus on space.  Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Arkansas) quoted former Secretary of Defense Bob Gates as writing in a new book that “moving boxes is usually not the right solution,” but instead cultural change from leadership is needed (and he thanked the witnesses for their leadership in this case).  Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska), who chairs the Readiness Subcommittee, wanted to know if it is “prudent” to take on a “fairly disruptive” effort like this when the services are not up to the level of readiness they need and that should have priority.

Some Senators quoted Wilson’s testimony from 2017 when she opposed the idea.  At the time, Wilson said the Pentagon was complicated enough and a Space Corps (as it was called then) would make it more so, adding more boxes and costing more money.  If she had more money, she said then, she would put it into lethality instead.  Asked if she would be promoting a Space Force today if President Trump had not issued an order to do so, she did not answer the question directly.  Instead she said the “President has done us a service by elevating this conversation and making the challenge we face in space a kitchen table conversation. …. I think we need to give him credit for that.”

Sen. Doug Jones (D-Alabama) said he was inclined towards a Space Force, but continues to have questions because “we’re still seeing generalities.” After hearing more of them, he used a specific example, asking if the Army’s Space and Missile Defense Command (SMDC) at Redstone Arsenal would become part of Space Force.  Shanahan’s answer was “it depends on which part.”  Some parts will be “aligned” with Space Force as part of Army modernization, but “legacy” operations will remain.

Gen. Joseph Dunford, Jr., Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, testifying to the Senate Armed Services Committee, April 11, 2019. Screengrab

Others asked what role the Reserves and the National Guard will have in the Space Force.  Those decisions are yet to be made.

The swirling questions about so many aspects of the proposal led Dunford to make what may be the most salient point in the near term.

“The real question before the committee is do we stand up the organization and get that four star leader singularly focused on what the right organizational construct is, or do we wait for the perfect organizational construct to stand it up? — Gen. Joseph Dunford, Jr.

His answer was to start now. “I feel we should move out and refine as we go. The committee will have plenty of time to provide oversight. … The first step to take in this next fiscal year would be to stand up the organization, get the leadership in place, and then begin to address these very important issues….”

The question is whether the committee will follow that advice when it marks up the NDAA next month, reject the proposal as it has in the past, or come up with an alternative.

This article has been updated.

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