Senate committee remains skeptical for need of stand-alone Space Force service branch

Senate committee remains skeptical for need of stand-alone Space Force service branch

April 9
Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan delivers remarks at the 35th Space Symposium in Colorado Springs, Colo., on Tuesday. (Lisa Ferdinando/DoD)

WASHINGTON — Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan faced bipartisan pushback Thursday on his effort to create a  branch of the military for space — even as he repeatedly warned the next conflict may likely be decided in that arena.

“There is widespread agreement the status quo is not sufficient,” Shanahan told the Senate Armed Services Committee. “Change is required to stay ahead. Approached correctly, this is an opportunity for a generational improvement.”

“We need to outpace the threats in space, not simply keep up,” he said. “Because our current system isn’t organized to move fast enough, the Space Force will consolidate, elevate, and focus our efforts for results.”

Committee members generally agreed that space defense and warfare need a more precise focus and coordination. Some members, however, voiced what has become a recurring congressional concern about a new service branch adding bureaucracy and costs to an already huge Pentagon snarl of commands and silos.

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

Shanahan has been talking up the Space Force all week, making a trip to Colorado on Monday and Tuesday to participate in a high-profile symposium on the future of warfare in outer space.

On Wednesday, in a brief chat with Pentagon reporters, Shanahan steered many questions to the Space Force and previewed the importance of today’s committee hearing.

In the fiscal year 2020 budget request, the Pentagon seeks $72.4 million to stand up the Space Force headquarters and then $2 billion over five years to fund the Space Force. It also seeks $150 million for the Space Development Agency and $83.8 million for U.S. Space Command — $76 million of which would be transferred from existing accounts.

The Space Command, which unlike a new Space Force does not need congressional approval, will be the military’s 11th unified combatant command.

“Both China and Russia have weaponized space with the intent to hold American capabilities at risk,” Shanahan told committee members. “Every member of this committee has access to the classified threat picture, but the bottom line is: The next major conflict may be won or lost in space.”

He was joined at the hearing by Gen. James Dunford, chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson. Wilson, who is leaving her post at the end of May to become  president of University of Texas at El Paso, was a strong opponent of a new Space Force branch of service — a fact noted by some committee members.

However, Wilson passed on giving a direct response when asked if her now recommendation of a Space Force would have materialized had President Donald Trump not demanded its creation.

“I don’t think it’s broken,” Sen. Angus King (I-Maine) said. “You’re doing a good job. Why are we going to ‘fix’ it?”

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