Senators show skepticism over Space Force

By Ellen Mitchell |  The Hill

Members of the Senate Armed Services Committee from both parties on Thursday aired their skepticism about President Trump’s Space Force proposal as Pentagon brass sought to defend the plan.

At a hearing on the proposal, senator after senator questioned whether adding bureaucracy could have the opposite of its intended effect to improve the military’s operations in space.

“When we first heard about the proposal I asked two simple questions: What will the organization fix, and how much will it cost?” committee Chairman James Inhofe (R-Okla.) said in his opening statement. “It’s come out of the administration that this is going to be a $2 billion program. So, for my purposes, I’m going to assume that’s right. But I’m still waiting for the answer for the other question.”

The administration’s argument:

The skeptical questioning for acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford, Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson and Strategic Command chief Gen. John Hyten underscores the difficulty Trump faces in getting what has become one of his top defense priorities across the finish line.

Arguing that threats from other countries necessitate a greater focus from the military on space, the Trump administration has proposed creating a Space Force within the Department of the Air Force. That would make the Space Force’s relationship to the Air Force similar to that of the Marine Corps to the Navy.

Pentagon officials argued a separate military branch for space is inevitable as Russia and China increasingly look to space for military purposes.

“Five years from now is going to look much different,” Shanahan said. “I think sometimes we look through the lens of today and we extrapolate going forward.”

Skepticism remains:

But Thursday’s hearing made clear senators remain skeptical.

“I guess we need some convincing that there is a necessity for a sixth branch,” Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) said.

Should Congress approve the proposal, Space Force headquarters would be set up within 90 days, and the service would be fully operational by 2024, Wilson told senators.

House lawmakers in both parties are generally supportive of the idea of a Space Force under Air Force purview but have expressed concerns about some specifics of the Trump proposal, such as how many new four-star generals would be created.

Questions unanswered: 

Senators, though, have been deeply dubious of the need for a new service. The reason a House-passed plan in 2017 for a space corps did not become a reality was because of fierce opposition in the Senate.

There were several questions about whether establishing a Space Force would bifurcate space from the other services, thereby undermining the “jointness” the military touts as an imperative.

“In Maine, there are certain basic principles of life. One is, you don’t drive on the ice after April 15th. Second is, you hate the Yankees. And third is, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” Sen. Angus King (I-Maine) said, adding he does not think the Pentagon’s current approach is broken.

King and others questioned why a Space Command, which the Pentagon is also moving to establish, would not be sufficient.

“Can you explain why we need to put all space assets, space forces into a separate service as opposed to a combatant command?” Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) asked. “Unless, as Sen. King said, we’re going to have a large number of actual soldiers in space fighting and they need a different set of skills, this is primarily going to be about technology and acquisitions and so forth. So,. I think what a lot of us on the committee are trying to figure out is what’s the incremental advantage of having a separate space force.”

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