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Lawmakers question Trump’s Space Force proposal

Acting defense secretary Patrick Shanahan, right, greets Chairman James M. Inhofe (R-Okla.) before an April 11 hearing on the proposed Space Force.
Acting defense secretary Patrick Shanahan, right, greets Chairman James M. Inhofe (R-Okla.) before an April 11 hearing on the proposed Space Force. (Andrew Harnik/AP)
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Lawmakers said Thursday that the United States must act to confront unprecedented military competition in space but questioned the Trump administration’s $2 billion proposal to create a new military branch to address that threat.

Acting defense secretary Patrick Shanahan, Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and other Pentagon leaders appeared before the Senate Armed Services Committee to argue for the creation of President Trump’s proposed Space Force.

But Sen. James M. Inhofe (R-Okla.), the Republican committee chairman, asked a question heard throughout the more-than-two-hour hearing: “What will [this] organization fix?”

The Pentagon has already reestablished a Space Command that will be headed by a four-star general. But the Space Force, if approved, would stand up an organization to train and equip specialized forces whose mission would be to accelerate America’s response to militarization of space.

Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.), the committee’s top Democrat, said he agreed that changes needed to be made to maintain America’s dominance in space.

“However, creating a new branch of the armed forces for the first time in 70 years is not a decision Congress should make lightly,” he said. “Such a major reorganization would have long-lasting consequences, both intended and unintended.”

Establishing a Space Force, which would be housed inside the Air Force, is expected to cost an estimated $2 billion spread out over five years. The fate of the proposal may become clear later this spring when lawmakers draft an annual defense bill that could include language on a Space Force.

The debate over the Pentagon’s role in space comes to a head after years of growing anxiety about efforts, mainly by Russia and China, to develop abilities to target satellites critical to a host of military functions, including guided munitions, missile defense systems and GPS. Both countries have improved their capability to attack U.S. space assets using lasers, missiles or jamming technology.

Todd Harrison, director of the Aerospace Security Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said supporters of an organization overhaul now faced the best odds in many years of on-and-off congressional discussions on such ideas.

“My sense is that this is the year of the decision,” he said. “Either it’ll happen this year or we’ll have to wait another generation.”

In the House, Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.), who chairs the House Armed Services Committee, has said he does not support the proposal as written, complaining that it is too expensive and too bureaucratic.

Smith has never opposed the idea of focusing more attention on developing space capabilities in concept, though he has balked at the idea of establishing an entirely new department to achieve that goal since Trump began to float it. The administration’s current plan is structurally more in line with the proposals Smith has expressed willingness to discuss, even if he thinks the construct of the proposal is flawed.

He is not alone in that assessment. Even House Republicans are unsatisfied with the administration’s Space Force proposal as presented, Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Tex.) told reporters this week. Thornberry contends that it would be more efficient to work off the Space Corps model included in the House’s, but not the Senate’s, version of the annual military authorization bill in 2017. Space Corps never made it into the final bill, after then-Defense Secretary Jim Mattis urged lawmakers to leave it out.

The support of the top military brass for a dedicated space unit puts greater urgency behind efforts to include such measures in this year’s defense bill. But with leading lawmakers in both parties still skeptical about the particulars, getting a consensus on just what the Space Force should look like could prove to be one of the more contentious issues Congress will have to iron out.

Some of the officials testifying Thursday in support of the Space Force had previously argued against similar plans. But the speed with which adversarial nations were making strides in space convinced them of the current proposal’s merits, they said.

The initiative is a personal one for Shanahan, who headed an effort to draft a detailed Space Force plan as the Pentagon’s No. 2 official before being tapped to take over the department after Mattis’s abrupt resignation late last year.

In a speech about space earlier this week, Shanahan said the United States “must confront reality” in dealing with new threats.

“The next major conflict may be won or lost in space,” he said.

Like the Space Force proposal, Shanahan is now in limbo as he awaits the conclusion of a Pentagon ethics probe into allegations he improperly sought to influence decisions affecting his former employer, Boeing. Trump has not said definitively whether he will nominate Shanahan, who denies the allegations, to assume the job on a permanent basis.

Many of the concerns voiced by senators were bureaucratic, involving the potential for duplication of personnel and squandering of military resources at a time when the Pentagon is seeking to capi­tal­ize on a larger budget to reorient toward battling fellow great powers.

Reed said the current proposal for a 16,500-strong Space Force would have “the highest overhead-to-operation ratio within the military.”

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), who has announced her presidential candidacy, said she was concerned that problems with the Pentagon’s acquisition process — known for its cost overruns and slow timeline — would persist even if organization changes occurred.

“There’s no reason to believe that adding an entirely new Space Force bureaucracy and pouring buckets more money into it is going to reduce our overall vulnerability in space,” she said.

Efforts to bolster space defense programs are also the subject of ongoing disagreement among senior officials. Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson, who is stepping down next month, on Thursday reiterated her opposition to the Pentagon’s new Space Development Agency, which Air Force officials say duplicates existing functions within that service.

Dunford acknowledged that a host of questions remained but said that the United States could not afford to wait to act.

“My best military advice . . . would be to move out now with what might be the 80 percent solution, and refine as we go,” he said.

Karoun Demirjian contributed to this report.