WASHINGTON --- The Senate Armed Services Committee acknowledged April 11 that maintaining U.S. superiority in space is a national imperative but expressed skepticism that creating a Space Force as a new, sixth branch of military is the best approach for achieving that goal.
The hearing was one of the first – and most high profile to date – focusing solely on the administration’s plan to create a Space Force within the Air Force as a new branch of the military to confront emerging threats in space. Chairman James Inhofe, R-Okla., set the tone at the outset, saying he had two primary questions: How much will the Space Force cost and how will it “fit” into the military’s larger operations, mandates and strategic goals?
While Inhofe said the first question has been answered, “I’m still waiting for answers to the other question.”
Indeed, questions about the Space Force’s form and function and whether it provides crucial new capabilities or duplicates existing ones dominated the two-and-a-half-hour long hearing. Those same questions are likely to dominate debate in coming months as Congress considers the issue.
The hearing featured testimony from Acting Secretary of Defense Patrick M. Shanahan, Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Joseph F. Dunford and Gen. John E. Hyten, commander of United States Strategic Command.
In making the case for the Space Force, Shanahan echoed observations that have been made repeatedly by Wilson and other senior military and civilian leaders.
“We currently maintain an advantage relative to these competitors, but our space enterprise was built for a strategic environment that no longer exists and our margin of dominance is quickly shrinking,” he said, specifically noting actions by Russia and China.
“We must not wait until we experience conflict in space to adapt our posture,” he said in testimony prepared for the hearing. “As other great powers become more competent and capable in space, America burdens increased risk because we will not have sufficient time to ‘hammer out’ what will be needed and how to do it if contingencies arise.”
By the end of the hearing, only one senator – freshman Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn. – voiced unequivocal support. “I may be an outlier on this committee,” she said, “but I totally get why you need Space Force. I fully understand why you need to make this a priority and to focus on this.”
For her part, Wilson reprised a primary argument for why a Space Force is necessary in an era of great power competition and at a time when space has moved from an open and uncontested environment to one that is highly contested and militarily crucial.
“America is the best in the world at space, and our adversaries know it,” Wilson said. As she did on April 9 in a major speech to the 35th Space Symposium in which she outlined the Air Force’s “clear-eyed assessment” of the changing nature in space, she told the committee that the Air Force closely examined “a range of options” for ensuring dominance in space and, after that review, “landed on the Space Force.”
More broadly, Wilson told the committee that President Donald Trump deserves credit for his focus on space and “elevating this issue and making this a kitchen table conversation.”
Wilson also told the committee that creating a Space Force is important because it will have a unity of purpose and focus and it will “identify a culture as part of a joint warfighting culture.”
Wilson pointed out that the Air Force has created a plan that will allow the Space Force to be operational within 90 days after legislation creating it is signed into law. She also highlighted how the Air Force has moved aggressively to streamline the procurement process and make it more nimble. Changes made to date in discarding unnecessary acquisition practices have cut 21 years out of space programs alone.
Even so, many on the committee were not convinced.
“All of us would agree that space is essential to the security of the United States,” said ranking member Jack Reed, D-R.I. “We must prepare accordingly. The question is, how?”
Reed voiced concern that, in his view, the organizational structure for the Space Force is “top-heavy.” “Why didn’t you think harder about coming up with a leaner structure?” he asked.
Reed also asked why the National Reconnaissance Office and assorted intelligence agencies with responsibilities for space were not folded into the Space Force.
Shanahan responded that, “the bias is toward speed” which meant the proposal includes “stakeholders we have control of.”
Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, said, “It’s agreed (Space Force) is a necessity but there’s no agreement for how to sort it out.”
Sen. Angus King, I-Maine, said he was “undecided but skeptical.” “How is it that adding a box to an org chart is going to give us a qualitative military edge?”
Hyten responded that while currently senior military leaders and commanders have responsibility for space, they also have other demands. That fractured approach, he said, must be resolved now that space is highly contested.
With a Space Force, he said, “there will be somebody in the Pentagon focusing all attention, all the time, on space.”
One thing most agreed on was the need to concentrate on space.
“Everyone loses if war extent expands into space,” Wilson said. “But we are developing the capabilities to deter and, if necessary, to fight and win in the space domain as we do in all other domains so that our adversaries will choose wisely to deal with our diplomats and not with our war fighters, and that's what this is about.”