Most members of the Senate Armed Services Committee sounded skeptical of the Pentagon’s proposal to create a new Space Force under the Air Force during a hearing Thursday.

While Acting Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan, Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson, Chairman of the Joint Chief of Staff Marine Gen. Joseph Dunford, and Commander of U.S. Strategic Command Air Force Gen. John Hyten tried to address lawmaker’s concerns, many members questioned the wisdom of creating a sixth branch of the armed forces under the Air Force.

Witnesses at the Senate Armed Services Committee hearing at Space Froce. From L to R: Chairman of the Joint Chief of Staff Gen. Joseph Dunford, Acting Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan, Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson, and commander of U.S. Strategic Command Gen. John Hyten. (Image: Screenshot from SASC video feed)

Chairman James Inhofe (R-Okla.) noted at the top of the hearing that “we’re all open-minded on the plan, but are wrestling with different aspects of it and this is one of those rare times where we’re having a hearing where people haven’t already made up their minds.”

That sense of exploring undecided issues played out over the almost three-hour hearing.

Early on, ranking member Jack Reed (D-R.I.) raised concerns the new Space Force may “just add bureaucracy without effect” with a high overhead ratio of 1,000 personnel in headquarters positions compared to 16,500 overall personnel. He was also skeptical of the need to create two new four-star positions, the Chief of Staff and Vice Chief of Staff of the Space Force, which would sit with the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Sen. Angus King (I-Maine) said he was undecided but was particularly skeptical of the proposal.

“I understand the threat and I understand our adversaries are moving forward, but I don’t understand how adding a box to an organizational chart is going to give us some kind of qualitative military edge to use a term that we’ve heard in this committee,” King said.

King said he believes having a Space Command makes sense, but he still needs to be convinced that there is an incremental value to creating a new bureaucracy at a cost of $500 million per year.

Skepticism was bipartisan, with several Republicans pointing out major concerns. Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) asked why they need a new Space Force when nuclear weapons were put into Strategic Command. Sen. Mike Rounds (R-S.D.) said seeing the Air Force improve on programs like the B-21, getting it on time and on budget made him skeptical space processes would be different. He also questioned if having a single dual-hatted four-star official made sense over two new four stars for Space Command and Chief of Staff of the force.

Shanahan responded it would be too much work for one person to have both roles.

Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska) focused his concerned on how funding for this new service would distract from continuing to improve overall military readiness. He also voiced skepticism at putting something like space-based sensors for missile defense into the Space Development Agency (SDA).

“Doesn’t something like that automatically, in your mind, indicate that we’re going to have a delay in deploying a space-based sensor system, which you and others and we all agree is critical to missile defense? When you’re taking it out of the missile defense agency into a new agency that hasn’t even been stood up yet?”

Hyten said regardless of which agency is in charge of the sensors, threat requirements are telling him they need that capability by the mid-2020s and SDA could do it with the right authorities.

The Defense Department is requesting $150 million in FY 2020 for the SDA, which Wilson has repeatedly said she opposes.

“I guess we need some convincing that there is a necessity for a sixth branch within our armed services,” Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) said.

She raised the idea of Special Operations Command (SOCOM) and how it incorporates forces from all of the service branches without being a separate branch of its own. “So why is that not a great example then of what we could do for a space command instead of a space force?”

Shanahan said SOCOM has a different model and the scale and complexity of research and development done by SOCOM versus what is done in the Air Force for space is much larger. He said SOCOM does about $600 million in R&D while the Air Force has $11 billion in acquisition and $8 billion in research, development, test, and evaluation (RDT&E).

After Wilson explained the Space Force timeline to reach full operational capability by the 2023-2024, Ernst said, “that sounds very fast actually to stand up a whole separate branch of service, but it is something that we’ll continue to look at…”

Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson speaks to the 35th Space Symposium in Colorado Springs, Colo., April 9, 2019. Wilson spoke on the importance of space cooperation and innovation. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Dalton Williams)

On Wednesday, Wilson told reporters at the Space Foundation’s 35th annual Space Symposium in Colorado Springs, Colo., that the timeline is realistic. The current plan is to stand up an initial cell of Space Force personnel within 90 days of legislation being signed, involving about 160 personnel (Defense Daily, April 10).

Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) was one of the few senators to fully support the proposal.

“I may be the outlier on this panel, but I totally appreciate why you need to have a space force. I get it.”

Sen. Doug Jones (D-Ala.) was willing to say that “candidly, unlike some colleagues, my needle may be a little bit more inclined to create a space force.” However, he still had questions like which specific entities will become part of Space Force and if the Army Space and Missile Defense Command (SMDC) at Redstone Arsenal in Alabama would join it.

He noted the committee has been told about some specific entities with global space capacity would be part of the Space Force, namely the Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center, the Navy Mobile User Objective Systems (MUOS), and Army Operations of wide and narrow band global satellite communications.

Shanahan said some parts of SMDC could join the new branch, but not the parts that support ongoing legacy Army operations, which would stay in their current capacity and alignment.

Senators Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) were the clearest skeptics in the hearing.

Manchin was concerned that the Space Force plan still does not address any National Guard or Reserve components and did not understand what this force would add.

“I’m having a real hard time understanding why we need this other agency. You’ve got everything at your disposal right now. And this doesn’t make any – I mean I’m just having a hard time with it…but this doesn’t make any sense at all,” Manchin said.

Warren was even more clear in her opposition. She said she did not know “what problem this Space Force is supposed to solve” and that “none of the ideas that I have heard today clearly spell out how a Space Force leads to improved security in space.”

She noted since the Space Force would be headquartered under the Air Force it “would still leave exactly one person responsible for acquiring hardware for both the Space Force and Air Force.”

Rather than increase space security, Warren said, “all I see is how a new Space Force will create one more organization to ask Congress for money, and there’s no reason to believe that adding an entirely new space force bureaucracy and adding buckets more money into it is going to reduce our overall vulnerability in space.”

NRO Might Join Later

Relatedly, upon questioning by Reed and Sen. Deb Fischer (R-Neb.), Shanahan admitted the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) could join the Space Force in the future.

Reed asked if DoD is unifying the military effort in space, why retain the NRO and other offices outside the new branch.

“The bias in the proposal is toward speed. The proposal we submitted really represents the stakeholders that we have control of,” Shanahan said. He added that technical discussions “at one point and time” could allow the integration between the intelligence agency and the Defense Department.

“We thought of it as a multi-step process that eventually there would be more alignment and integration, but not in the first phase,” Shanahan continued.

When Fischer followed-up by asking if there is a need for NRO to be under the Space Force, Shanahan said, “there is a need. It was an issue of timing. So if we could do it all concurrently that would be ideal. I don’t think we can move that quickly, so rather than delay, we said this is what we can do immediately, provision for that integration and realignment in time.”

Fischer then asked if delaying integrating NRO would be a detriment in the overall unification of national security space activities.

Shanahan said he would rather do more sooner.

“This is more about how the equities of stakeholders, if we can resolve some of those more quickly, we would incorporate more [activities],” he said.

Wilson said there is a “deep, organic connection” between the Air Force and NRO, with about 40 percent of NRO staff coming from the Air Force. Many things the Air Force must protect in space are NRO assets.

However, she expressed some skepticism about putting NRO under the Space Force.

“Deepening that connection is important, it may not require actual structural change in the organizational chart and we’d be happy to work with you on kinds of things that might continue to deepen that already very close connection,” Wilson said.