Space Force Draws Senators’ Skepticism Over Costs, Bureaucracy

  • Military’s organization plan criticized as too top-heavy
  • Hearing throws fiscal 2020 budget proposal into doubt

Senators peppered top Pentagon officials with doubts about Space Force plans Thursday and said they remain undecided on whether to authorize the new military service.

Concerns that the space service proposal in the Pentagon’s budget request would add unneeded bureaucracy and costs came from both Democratic and Republican members of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Pentagon leadership including acting Defense Secretary Pat Shanahan came to the Senate in hopes of selling the idea to the committee, which would play a key role in crafting a Space Force authorization this year. But the hearing exposed a deep skepticism among many of the members toward the space service, a signature initiative of President Donald Trump.

Photographer: Alex Wong/Getty Images
Sen. Angus King (I-Maine)

“I just don’t understand why this has to be in a particular, special box,” Sen. Angus King (I-Maine), a committee member, said about military space operations. “To create a new bureaucracy that is going to cost us half a billion dollars a year, I’ve got to be convinced there is some incremental value there.”

The Space Force budget proposal would create the new, relatively tiny military service within the Department of the Air Force to counter growing space threats from China, Russia and other adversaries. Many of its estimated 16,500 troops would come from the Air Force, which currently handles the vast majority of space operations, and other services.

The Pentagon has requested $72 million in fiscal 2020 to set up the headquarters. It estimates the total needed for the new service is $2 billion and it will eventually cost $500 million per year to operate.

Now or Later?

The House and Senate armed services committees must authorize the Space Force as part of their annual defense bill. House members have indicated they will pass some version of the proposal but the hearing Thursday raised doubts about Senate support.

“We’re going to have a Space Force someday. I think what the committee has to decide is, when is that going to happen and I think now is the time,” said Gen. John Hyten, the head of U.S. Strategic Command who has been nominated to be Joint Chiefs vice chairman. “You want to get ahead of the problem — not trail it, not come in the response to a catastrophe.”

Shanahan and Hyten testified alongside Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson and Gen. Joseph Dunford, the Joint Chiefs chairman, in an effort to sway the committee, which shot down a similar 2017 proposal for a new Space Corps.

But some senators focused on what they see as a top-heavy organization.

The plan calls for a Space Force with 1,000 of its 16,500 troops serving in headquarters positions when the Marine Corps, the next smallest service, has 1,200 staff serving in headquarters positions for its force of 246,000, said Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.), the top Democrat on the committee.

“Why didn’t we think more about coming with a leaner structure?” Reed said.

Wilson said the Pentagon had weighed various organizational structures and about half of the headquarters staff would be need to represent the service in the department and on the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The rest of would be part of a professional development element for Space Force personnel.

Senators such as Sen. Deb Fischer (R-Neb.), chairman of the Armed Services strategic forces subcommittee, raised other concerns about a lack of clarity in the plan on how the Space Force would work with the National Reconnaissance Office, the space intelligence agency that currently has a close relationship with the Air Force.

Shanahan said the Pentagon hopes to work out the relationship with the NRO further in the future.

To contact the reporter on this story: Travis J. Tritten at ttritten@bgov.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Paul Hendrie at phendrie@bgov.com; Robin Meszoly at rmeszoly@bgov.com; Jonathan Nicholson at jnicholson@bgov.com