WASHINGTON: When is a Space Force not a Space Force? When it is a reorganization of the Air Force by a different name. The House and Senate Armed Services Committees’ versions of the fiscal year 2020 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) both ‘just say no’ to the Trump Administration’s plans for a sixth branch of the armed forces integrating all military programs and personnel dedicated to space.
Instead, the HASC and SASC have taken action to separate the Air Force’s space activities into a Marine Corps-like structure, as well as rearrange the deck chairs on the Titanic that is DoD space acquisition. The two versions of the defense authorization bill vary on their approach to acquisition, but they agree on much of the structure of the new Space Force — or Space Corps.
Proponents of the creation of a truly separate military organization for space — one separate from the Air Force and incorporating all four services’ space activities — remain cautiously optimistic that the moves by Congress are a step in the right direction.
“Given the DoD’s poor job of presenting how we would move people and what criteria would be used, the congressional pushback is expected. And remember, when Congress created the Air Force (way back in 1947) they still left many aviation units in the Army, Navy, and Marines,” one former DoD official told me. “The only thing to discuss is exact roles and responsibilities for various elements of that force. … But in general, we’re on a decent path.”
The HASC voted on the NDAA in a marathon session Wednesday through the early hours yesterday. The SASC passed its bill on May 22, but only released the text in full on Wednesday. Both bills foresee the new force as being led by a four-star general who will (eventually in the case of the SASC) sit on the Joint Chiefs of Staff. (This is despite the SASC calling the new Space Force head a “commander” and HASC deeming him/her as “commandant”.)
Both bills explicitly rule out folding the National Reconnaissance Organization (NRO) and the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) into the future Space Force/Corps, and they forego amalgamation of Army and Navy space programs and personnel. The SASC explicitly limits the new force to Air Force personnel only; the HASC version does so implicitly, although the committee says it would be willing to relook the issue next year.
While the SASC gives the Pentagon and the Air Force one year to reorganize and stand up the new force, the HASC bill foresees a more gradual change-over happening between 2021 and 2023. While the Senate approved the Pentagon’s full $72.4 million request for the new service, the amendment to HASC Chairman Adam Smith’s markup asks the Pentagon to come back with a detailed report of estimated funding requirements by Feb. 1, 2020.
The Space Corps provision in the HASC bill is based on an amendment by HASC strategic forces chairman Jim Cooper and it ranking minority member, Mike Rogers, passed separately in the wee hours Thursday. It essentially is a copy of their legislation from last year (when their roles were reversed). The amendment text (provided to reporters) does not including a funding level, and the final legislative text of the HASC’s NDAA is not yet available.
The SASC bill approves the Pentagon request of $72.4 million for the Space Force. It also provides more specific instructions to the Pentagon and Air Force about how to reorganize space acquisition authorities; whereas the HASC bill would create a separate system for all space acquisition (except that of the spy agencies) but asks DoD to come up with a plan for how to do so.
The SASC bill would carve out space acquisition authority from Will Roper, head of Air Force acquisition.
It would “expand and change the role of the principal assistant to the Secretary of the Air Force for space by renaming it the principal assistant to the Secretary of the Air Force for Space Acquisition and Integration (SAF/SP) and establish the position as the senior space acquisition executive (SSAE) for all space acquisition across the Air Force,” the bill says. The SAF/SP, acting as the SSAE, would report to the Air Force Secretary and would oversee and control all Air Force space acquisition activities, “including all major defense acquisition programs relating to warfighting in space.” All space acquisition projects currently managed by Roper would be transitioned to the SAF/SP, along with “control of the manpower, agencies, and budgets within the Space and Missile Systems Center, the Space Rapid Capabilities Office, and the Space Development Agency.” The SAF/SP would be equivalent to a civilian 4-star.
The SASC bill also would create a Space Acquisition Council “which would oversee, direct, and manage Air Force acquisitions for space in order to ensure integration across the national security space enterprise.” It would be chaired by the SAF/SP and include the undersecretary of the Air Force, the commander of US Space Command, the commander of the Space Force, and the NRO director. The latter is being included because the “committee believes that the inclusion of the Director of the NRO on the SAC would help to minimize the space acquisition seam that exists between the NRO and the Air Force.” It would meet at least once a month, and be required to report to Congress every year through 2025.
The HASC bill, by contrast, asks the deputy secretary of defense to submit a plan that would allow the Air Force to “establish a separate, alternative acquisition system for defense space acquisitions, including with respect to procuring space vehicles, ground segments relating to such vehicles, and satellite terminals.”
The bills reflect a bipartisan skepticism about the Trump Administration’s plan for the future of DoD space, while at the same time serving as a relatively mild rebuke to Air Force management of space programs and personnel. While the differing provisions will have to be hashed out in conference committee — and funding levels will now depend on the appropriations committees, with the House committee already limiting funds to $15 million for a Pentagon study — it is clear that a true Space Force is not in the cards anytime soon.