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​(From left to right) Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan, Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. Joseph Dunford, and US Strategic Command boss Gen. John Hyten testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee on April 11, 2019, about the department’s proposal to create a Space Force as a sixth branch of the military under the Air Force. Air Force Magazine illustration by Jennifer-Leigh Oprihory; DOD photos.

Both Republican and Democratic members of the Senate Armed Services Committee grilled USAF and Defense Department leaders for nearly three hours on Thursday, trying to determine whether it really is necessary to create a sixth branch of the military dedicated solely to space.

The committee overwhelmingly seemed to agree on the necessity of creating a new unified combatant command dedicated to space, but there was widespread skepticism of the Pentagon’s proposal to create a Space Force as a new military service under the Department of the Air Force.

“I fully agree that the threat is real, and that changes need to be made to better address the threat,” SASC Ranking Member Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.) said. “However, creating a new branch of the armed forces for the first time in 70 years is not a decision Congress should make lightly. Such a major reorganization would have long-lasting consequences, both intended and unintended, for how our forces will fight for decades into the future.”

Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan said the creation of the new service will allow the department to transition space from a combat support function to a warfighting domain. In his prepared testimony, he argued the creation of a Space Force would “institutionally elevate space relative to its role in national security; unify space missions, capabilities, and forces with clear responsibilities and authorities; and focus on the development and fielding of the personnel, culture, doctrine, and capabilities for a distinct, yet integrated domain.”

But senators from both sides of the aisle questioned whether the new service as currently proposed really would serve as an integrated domain if the National Reconnaissance Office and the rest of the intelligence community’s space-based capabilities remain separate.

Shanahan acknowledged that, ideally, those forces would be aligned under this new architecture from the start, but he said the department is still negotiating with those agencies on how that might work, and it didn’t want to delay the stand-up of the new service.

“We thought of it as a multi-step process. Eventually there will be more alignment and integration, but not in the first stage,” he said.

Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson and US Strategic Command boss USAF Gen. John Hyten told the committee the Air Force’s relationship with the NRO has never been stronger, saying that relationship will continue to grow even if a new service is created.

Hyten said the department was directed to complete a report detailing its relationship with the NRO and the military intelligence community by mid-August, but he hoped it would be finished sooner “because that relationship is very important.”

Sen. Angus King (I-Maine) praised the Air Force for the work it’s already done in space, saying the United States continues to be dominant in space. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” King said, adding, “I don’t understand how adding a box to an organizational chart will give us some kind of qualitative military edge. I’m generally undecided, although as you can tell, I’m skeptical. I don’t think it’s broken. I think we’re doing a good job.”

Hyten agreed, but said the system was created based on certain assumptions that no longer exist. Space is an increasingly contested domain and potential adversaries have studied the United States and are rapidly building their own capabilities.

Although he said his entire career has been focused on space operations—and he certainly understands its importance—as the commander of the nation’s nuclear strategic deterrence, it’s not possible for space to be any higher than third on his priority list. He argued that re-establishing US Space Command will provide a four-star general who can focus solely on fighting and winning and space, but the department also needs someone at the Pentagon in charge of space.

“You said, rightly so, that space can never be more than third on your priorities list … You can imagine a world where nuclear strategic forces would be its own service, but we didn’t do that. We have Strategic Command to do that,” Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) said. “Can you explain why we need to put all space assets, all space forces, into a separate service as opposed to a combatant command?”

Hyten said if you look at the nuclear triad, the expertise for operating each of the legs clearly falls within the Air Force and Navy, as submarine-launched ballistic missiles are part of the maritime domain and intercontinental ballistic missiles and nuclear-capable bombers fall into the air domain. However, space capabilities require expertise in the space domain.

Cotton pushed back, saying it’s highly unlikely the US will have soldiers or marines operating in space, so any Space Force will largely be focused on acquisition and technology, which he called “Air Force-centric” capabilities.

“A lot of us on the committee are trying to figure out what are the benefits of having a separate service versus a combatant command,” he emphasized.

Wilson said a separate service will go a long way in developing space professionals and in strengthening space-specific professional development programs.

“Five years from now, the environment is going to look much different,” Shanahan said. “A lot of times we look through the lens of today and extrapolate forward.” But the department expects an “explosion of satellites” to be operating in space over the next few years, and it will need to quickly adapt to keep up with the changing environment. All of the services also are in the process of modernizing their command-and-control systems, and it’s much more efficient to start a Space Force now so those efforts can be streamlined, he added.

“There’s no disagreement from folks on the committee that space is something that we need to focus a great deal on,” Sen. Gary Peters (D-Mich.) said. “Our question is, is this approach that we’re looking at, is it just going to add a whole lot more cost at a time when the Defense Department has to be a whole lot more nimble and innovative? We can’t just keep throwing dollars at dollars.”

In his prepared testimony, Shanahan wrote the department is working to “maximize warfighting effectiveness while minimizing cost and bureaucracy” by keeping the new service inside the Department of the Air Force. This will allow the Space Force to take advantage of existing USAF support functions, such as the medical corps, chaplaincy, staff judge advocate, etc., and minimize cost.

“The vast majority of initial Space Force resources—personnel and budget authority—would be transferred from the existing military services,” he wrote. The department has requested $72 million in its fiscal 2020 budget request to establish the Space Force headquarters. The service itself would be phased in over a five-year period and once fully established, around fiscal 2024, is expected to cost about $500 million a year.

“Approximately $300 million would be applied toward the military space staff and civilian personnel at headquarters responsible for organizing, training, and equipping; $200 million would be directed for developing space-specific education, training, doctrine, and distinct space personnel management of the force,” Shanahan wrote. “These costs come to approximately 0.07 percent of DOD’s annual budget. Total additional cost growth over the next five years is estimated to be less than $2 billion, or approximately 0.05 percent of DOD’s budget for the same period.”

Reed, however, said the overhead-to-operations ratio of the proposed Space Force is significantly higher than any other service. With a projected force of just 16,500 personnel, the Space Force would be by far be the smallest service in the department, but its headquarters would include some 1,000 personnel. By comparison the Air Force today has approximately 320,000 Active Duty airmen and its headquarters is only about 2,300 personnel.

“Why didn’t we think harder about coming [in] with a leaner structure?” Reed questioned.

Wilson said the department considered a wide-range of options, “everything from a kind of JAG Corps, Medical Corps model to a completely independent standalone department, and a lot of things in between.” It landed at a new service within the department of the Air Force because it didn’t have to “duplicate all the acquisition, budgeting, finance, personnel kinds of functions,” but it would still be led by a four-star general who is a member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

“Now if somebody is going to be a Joint Chief and they’re going to have credibility in the building and be able to operate, they need to have the support of a member of the Joint Chiefs,” she said.

Of the proposed 1,200 additional personnel, about half of those will be in the headquarters, while the rest will make up the professional development element, she added. That “makes for a quite small headquarters for a member of the Joint Chiefs.”

Those assumptions could change in the future if the Space Force eventually breaks out as a separate department as the Trump administration wants.