Here's Why The USAF's Top Civilian Says It Will Take Nearly $13B To Do Space Force Right

The proposal differs from the Pentagon's own idea in key ways and points to a tense internal debate over plans for the U.S. military's newest branch.

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The U.S. Air Force’s top civilian has laid out a proposal for creating a new, independent Space Force that offers the clearest picture yet of how such a plan might work. However, the service’s concept, which would cost the U.S. military an estimated nearly $13 billion over five years to implement, diverges in important ways from the Pentagon’s own ideas about its possible sixth branch.

Various outlets obtained the 16-page memo that Secretary of the U.S. Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson to Deputy Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan, which is dated Sept. 14, 2018. Wilson also alluded to the fact that she had been working on the proposal in her keynote speech at the first day of the annual Air Force Association’s Air, Space, and Cyberspace conference on Sept. 17, 2018.

“As airmen, we have a responsibility to develop a proposal for the president that is bold and that carries out his vision,” Wilson declared in her public remarks. “That proposal must contain all of the elements needed for space to be fully successful as a department.”

On Sept. 10, 2018, Deputy Defense Secretary Shanahan had asked both Wilson and Undersecretary of Defense for Research and Engineering Michael Griffin, a major advocate for expanding the size and scope of the U.S. military’s role in space, to come up with possible plans for Space Force. We do not yet have any information on Griffin's proposal.

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Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson speaks at the Air Force Association's 2018 Air, Space, and Cyber conference on Sept. 17, 2018.

“This proposal establishes a clear mission, directly related to the strategic problem we are trying to solve,” Wilson wrote in her memo, according to Space News. “It preserves close ties to the warfighter, ensures strong authorities and avoids unnecessary delays and disruptions to ongoing programs.”

The plan would cost around $12.9 billion in total over the course of five years and require approximately $3.3 billion in the first year, according to Aviation Week. At the Air Force Association conference, Wilson said that President Donald Trump’s administration planned to ask Congress to approve the new service in its defense budget proposal for the 2020 fiscal year, which is set to come out in February 2019.

It is immediately worth noting that legislators would have to approve any Space Force plans and it remains unclear how many lawmakers truly support the idea. A multi-billion dollar proposal could be off-putting if it threatens to take money away from a wide array of existing major air, land, sea, and space modernization priorities or from funding to expand the size and improve the readiness of the existing services.

Space News says that the notional first-year budget that the Air Force laid out for Space Force includes $425 million to support the organization’s headquarters, which will have around 2,400 personnel, including the new service’s civilian secretary and chief of staff. There would be another $1.3 billion for unspecified “space force elements,” $1 billion for military construction, $351 million to pay for the operation and maintenance of subordinate units, and $114 million for actual personnel costs.

Lockheed Martin

A Space Based Infrared System (SBIRS) missile warning satellite during final assembly. The SBIRS constellation would be among the U.S. military's space assets that an independent Space Force would be in charge of operating.

The full Department of the Space Force would have a total of approximately 13,000 people to conduct satellite operations, threat analysis, and support forward deployed units and active operations. These individuals would come from the Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center, the U.S. Army’s Space and Missile Defense Command (SMDC), and U.S. Navy’s Space and Naval Warfare Systems Command (SPAWAR), but it’s not clear if these organizations would continue to exist in any form within their existing parent services.

Under Wilson’s concept, Space Force would also include the Space Development Agency (SDA) to take charge of space-related research and development and procurement programs. The Pentagon had included this new organization in its first roadmap for the transformation of the U.S. military’s “National Security Space Components” ahead of the possible creation of a Space Force, which it released in August 2018. This initial plan envisioned SDA subsuming the Air Force’s Space and Missile Systems Center, which presently handles around 85 percent of all military space-related acquisition programs.

Instead, Wilson has proposed that the Air Force’s Space Rapid Capabilities Office (RCO) run the SDA until such time as either a joint-service U.S. Space Command or a fully independent U.S. Space Force is ready to take control. Congress has already funded the creation of the Space RCO.

As such, this organization “exists now and has the personnel and expertise to meet the needs of U.S. Space Command,” Wilson argued in her memo, according to Space News. She acknowledged her idea “contrasts sharply with an [Office of the Secretary of Defense]-level technology policy organization that is far removed from operational needs, fielding, and sustainment issues.”

Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call via AP Images

Deputy Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan at his confirmation hearing in 2017.

The Air Force’s top civilian also proposed that the director of the secretive National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) take on the additional role as head of SDA. Though technically a part of the Department of Defense, NRO is the U.S. Intelligence Community’s central satellite arm and reports directly to both the Secretary of Defense and the Director of National Intelligence. Its work is so sensitive that its very existence was classified until 1992.

As we at The War Zone have noted in the past, the U.S. military has a long history of working closely with American intelligence agencies with regards to space-related activities, but there has been little discussion of how an independent Space Force would maintain this linkage. Wilson said that her plan would ensure that NRO and other U.S. intelligence stakeholders would maintain their “equities” with regards to national security decisions about activities in space.

Space Force “must maintain a close connection between acquisition and the warfighter,” Wilson said at the Air Force Association gathering. “It must deepen the already close connection between military space and the space elements of the intelligence community.”

Her proposal to Deputy Defense Secretary Shanahan also suggested Space Force could eventually take on a variety of roles and functions that other organizations presently perform. This could entail the transformation of the U.S. military’s Missile Defense Agency and Strategic Capabilities Office, as well as the Department of Commerce’s National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration and Space Traffic Management office and the independent National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

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A chart showing NRO's internal organization as of May 4, 2017. Of note is the organization's existing connections with the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA), and National Security Agency, all of which also have significant interests in activities in space.

“The Air Force proposal accomplishes several things: it focuses Department attention on what problems need to be solved; maximizes the utilization of existing resources; avoids the creation of duplicative functions; and provides a path to accomplishing the President’s vision for a separate Department of the Space Force,” Wilson wrote in her memo, according to Defense One. “The approach avoids disrupting programs and increasing risk to ongoing effort, while providing a vision for a comprehensive space force.”

It remains to be seen whether or not the Pentagon will entertain any of the Air Force Secretary’s proposal, however. The U.S. military’s top leadership notably cut the service out of the process of crafting the August 2018 space policy plan. Wilson herself had been publicly and categorically opposed to the basic idea of an independent Space Force until earlier in September 2018.

“If we’re going to do this, let’s propose to do it right,” she said at a conference Defense News hosted on Sept. 5, 2018, where she said she was now in “complete alignment” with the Trump Administration’s Space Force plans. “Let’s have this debate, support the president’s proposal and put it forward – and make sure that we don’t do this with half measures. I think that’s probably the most important part for me.”

Her memo shows that this alignment is actually far from total. We’ll have to wait and see how this continued friction impacts the structure of the final proposal that makes its way to Congress early next year.

Contact the author: jtrevithickpr@gmail.com