WASHINGTON — The quick development of the nascent space corps service branch shows how fast and focused the Pentagon can move when challenged with a timely imperative, Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan said Wednesday.
“You only get this kind of action when there is a compelling need to act,” Shanahan said during a forum on “Strategic National Security Space” Wednesday at the Center for Strategic & International Studies (CSIS) in Washington.
“In 18 months we went from a phone call…to a proposal establishing a new branch of the armed services,” he said. The new branch will help the U.S. “grow our margin of dominance in space,” he said.
“This is what it means to compete,” he said.
That smooth glide plane Shanahan described may hit some counter-winds Tuesday, when he appears before the House Armed Services Committee.
The chair of that committee, Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.), last week said the plan proposed by the White House — which Shanahan has embraced — is far too costly and adds more bureaucracy. “I cannot imagine that what they proposed is going to happen,” Smith told reporters then.
Shanahan said Wednesday that many members of Congress agree about the rising threat from China and Russia in space and want to do something about it. He said he had not “walked through the proposal” with Smith and that concerns about bloating the bureaucracy are “universal, and I don’t blame them.”
However, Shanahan said he has learned that “people have lots of positions (but) when we spend our time talking about interests, people are open-minded about being persuaded.”
In the budget it released last week, the Pentagon wants $72.4 million for fiscal 2020 to establish the Space Corps headquarters. The Pentagon projects the Space Corps will cost $2 billion over five years to get going.
“We can’t afford to lose our margin of dominance,” Shanahan said. “We would be blind, deaf and impotent before we ever knew what hit us. When you are faced with threats like this, you say yes to change.”
Rep. Jim Cooper, chair of the Armed Services Committee’s subcommittee on space, said the House would approve some vision of a space corps this year.
“I think the prospects could hardly be brighter,” Cooper, also speaking at the CSIS forum, said. “I think we are on the path here to achieve everyone’s goals.”
Cooper said the lower cost estimate for the space corps and the structure within the Air Force makes the White House proposal similar to one the House passed in 2017 that the Senate later killed.
“My guess is from the administration’s standpoint, they mainly care that we call it a Space Force, whatever we’re doing,” Cooper (D-Tenn.) said. He dubbed the initial $2 billion start-up costs “chicken feed” when placed within the overall defense budget request of $750 billion for fiscal 2020.
“We had hoped space would be (non-militarized),” Cooper said. The Chinese (actions) make it look like that is no longer true.”
Cooper said the irony is that interest the U.S. pays on the $1 trillion in bonds held by the Chinese on the U.S. debt most likely funds the entire Chinese defense budget.
“The U.S. is not the bad guy here,” Cooper said. “This is not a good situation. We do what we have to do is keep our assets safe and keep them safe for the world.”