Star Wars: DOD Execs and the USAF Are Already Battling Over A Non-Existent Space Force Budget

Dueling cost estimates also distract from the reality that there's still no firm understanding of the proposed new service's structure and role.

Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call via AP Images

As seemed almost inevitable from the start, the Pentagon and the U.S. Air Force are sparring over their respective cost estimates for what it would take to create a Space Force. With so many questions still unanswered about what the new independent service would do, it’s very likely that neither party’s figures are entirely accurate, but the debate itself highlights some of the most serious pitfalls of the entire enterprise of creating a new military branch.

On Nov. 15, 2018, Deputy Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan, who is in charge of planning for the new Space Force and its associated components, said his team has determined it would cost less than $10 billion, and perhaps even less than $5 billion, to establish the service. In September 2018, a leaked memo showed that Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson had pegged the new branch’s price tag at nearly $13 billion.

“There’s going to be a cost, but what I want to do is take existing cost and move it over to this [Space Force,” Shanahan had told Defense News in an interview a week earlier. “In this department, you know with this secretary [James Mattis] and this Congress, people in the White House, they’re not going to let us just go throw money at that.”

For more than a year, the Pentagon has been wrestling with the idea of an independent Space Force. Proponents of the plan argue that the existing bureaucracy and force structure, spread among the existing services, but primarily situated within the Air Force, isn’t adequate enough to respond to very real emerging threats and challenges to U.S. military activities outside the Earth’s atmosphere.

USAF

Deputy Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan, in the black suit, visits Los Angles Air Force Base, home of the Space and Missile Systems Center, in August 2018.

Critics contend that a separate Space Force would only exacerbate those issues and prompt infighting for funding and other resources. It’s a complicated debate, which we at The War Zone have explored multiple times in great detail.

In June 2018, however, President Donald Trump made it clear that his administration would actively push for the new service. The White House plans to ask Congress to approve the proposal and provide the initial funds in its budget proposal for the 2020 Fiscal Year, which should be publicly available in February or March 2019. Both Trump and Vice President Mike Pence have made expanding American presence in space, both in terms of military and civilian activities, a major policy objective and may see it as one potential legacy of their Administration.

The Air Force, which stands to lose the most in terms of budget, personnel, and other assets, initially opposed the idea of a separate Space Force, but appeared to change its attitude publicly after pressure from the White House. Still, it’s approximately $13 billion cost estimate drew criticism from supporters of the new service, who accused the USAF of trying to foment opposition to the new branch. 

“The president is going to be making some decisions to put forward a proposal in concert with his fiscal year 20[20] budget proposal that will go to the Congress in February,” Secretary of the Air Force Wilson said later on Nov. 15, 2018, after Shanahan had made his remarks. “So the cost will be really based on what are the elements in the model in that proposal, and our cost estimate that we gave to a lot of people in the Pentagon is September was the cost of a fully fledged standalone department and also a unified combatant command.”

Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call via AP Images

Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson.

It is entirely possible that the Air Force’s estimate is overly conservative, whether that was a deliberate decision to frame Space Force as overly expensive or not. The service’s cost breakdown includes the price tag for creating a functional joint service Space Command, akin to Cyber Command, as well as the new service branch itself.

At the same time, the Pentagon’s own plans have made clear that Space Command is an essential part of the process toward creating an independent Space Force. In addition, the U.S. military plans to create the Space Development Agency (SDA) to handle the development and procurement of certain satellites, launch vehicles, and other space-based systems. It is hard to understand how an accurate representation of Space Force’s costs would not include the price of establishing Space Command and SDA, as well.

There is also considerable evidence that Shanahan’s estimates, or even just his understanding thereof, may be overly optimistic. Unlike the Air Force, the former Boeing executive has not offered any sort of cost breakdown to justify his total figure.

USAF

A view inside what is now known as the Combined Joint Space Operations Center at Vandenberg Air Force Base.

“I haven’t looked at the number, but it’s going to be less than that,” he told Defense News just days before giving his broad cost estimate of less than $10 billion. “I’m not concerned that people are just going to generate a big bill.”

Shanahan has also previously dismissed concerns about how complicated simply moving the various space-related components on the Pentagon’s organization charts will actually be, despite there still not being a clear understanding of how Space Force would interact with other stakeholders within the U.S. military and Intelligence Community. Nearly a decade after its creation, Cyber Command is still working on defining its exact relationship with the National Security Agency and how the activities of the two organizations in cyberspace overlap and align.

The Deputy Defense Secretary has also shown an almost flippant disregard for other complexities within the military. This can only raise questions about whether he has an accurate interpretation of the information available to him.

“A jet engine is a jet engine; no one will convince me otherwise,” he said at a Defense Writer’s Group event in October 2018, while speaking on the topic of poor readiness rates within the U.S. military’s aviation communities. “I've been on more airplanes than anybody in the United States, I know these things, ok?”

US DoS

Then-Senior Vice President of Airplane Programs for Boeing Commercial Airplanes Shanahan, at left, walks with then-Secretary of State John Kerry at the firm's Renton, Washington plant in 2013.

Needless to say, the demands of military jet engines, together with the operational, maintenance, and logistics factors at play, are wildly different than those in the civilian aviation world. Shanahan primary experience at Boeing, the work that earned him the moniker “Mr. Fix-It,” was in commercial airliner programs.

Hopefully, when the President’s Budget for the 2020 Fiscal Year comes out in 2019, we will get more detail about Shanahan’s Space Force cost estimate. But the entire debate would seem to bolster criticisms that the endeavor risks sparking acrimonious infighting, which itself wastes time and resources.

Space Force’s budget will have to come out of the larger Pentagon budget, which is set to see cuts in the coming fiscal year, making it a point of contention and no one even knows exactly what the final projected price point and year-to-year costs will be yet. The energy that the Pentagon, Air Force, Congress, and the White House are expending fighting over these figures could be better spent on addressing real military space-related issues within the existing structure, or by adding far more limited bureaucracies, such as Space Command and SDA.

Lockheed Martin

A Space Based Infrared System (SBIRS) missile warning satellite during final assembly, one of the many US Air Force systems that could transition to the control of an independent Space Force.

All of the time and resources already expended on this debate could be increasingly moot, too. There was no indication that Space Force ever enjoyed enough support within Congress to come to fruition before and that now seems increasingly uncertain given Democratic Party victories in the House of Representatives. Adam Smith, a Democrat from Washington State who will head the House Armed Services Committee come January, has already voiced his opposition to the plan.

“What I oppose is a separate branch. I don’t think a separate branch makes sense,” Smith said in September 2018. “What is the most cost-effective way to give space the emphasis it deserves? I know it is not a Space Force.”

Of course, criticism from Smith and other legislators is unlikely to end the debate over whether or not to create Space Force, though, especially given Trump’s personal support for the plan. So, with all that in mind, the real budget battle over Space Force may still be yet to come.

Contact the author: jtrevithickpr@gmail.com