NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. — As Congress appears poised to pass the fiscal year 2019 (FY‘19) defense appropriations budget before the end of the fiscal year for the first time in over a decade, the Department of Defense’s (DoD) deputy secretary is looking at the next year’s budget request to shape the next half-century of military operations.

“Now is the time to make choices about what we will and won’t do,” Deputy Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan said Wednesday at the Air Force Association’s annual Air, Space and Cyber Conference here. “Those choices, as reflected in this budget, will determine what our military looks like for the next 50 years. And we’ve got 10 weeks to complete it.”

Deputy Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan speaks Sept. 19 at the Air Force Association's annual Air, Space and Cyber Conference in National Harbor, Maryland. Photo: Defense Department
Deputy Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan speaks Sept. 19 at the Air Force Association’s annual Air, Space and Cyber Conference in National Harbor, Maryland. Photo: Defense Department

The Senate on Tuesday passed the FY’19 defense appropriations bill, representing about $675 billion in funding, as part of a minibus legislation that also included funding for the Departments of Labor, Education and Health and Human Services. The House is expected to vote on the bill when it returns from recess next week. (Defense Daily, Sept. 18)

The next budget request will include a legislative proposal for the Space Force, Shanahan said. He remained elusive on the potential cost that could entail, or how a sixth military branch might choose to integrate space assets from the Air Force, Navy and Army, along with intelligence organizations such as the National Reconnaissance Office.

“While there is plenty of debate about the how, we are united by the why: protecting our economy and deterring our adversaries and focused on delivering more capability faster,” he said. That being said, he noted that “its headquarters will be lean. … Along the way, we will do no harm to existing missions, create no seams between the services and remain laser-focused on our warfighters and the capabilities they need to win.”

The Pentagon is moving forward on efforts that don’t require legislative approval, such as standing up a new combatant command dedicated to space and transitioning the Space and Missile Systems Center (SMC) to become a new space development agency, he added, noting that the SMC’s structure is not expected to “fundamentally change” in the process.

“If there was a way to replicate the Rapid Capabilities Office, put it on steroids, scale it, that would be in my mind, the space development agency,” he said.

He did not mention any cost estimates for standing up a new Space Force, nor detail the Air Force’s role in crafting a transition plan. The Air Force issued a memo to the Department of Defense last week that outlined how the service could transition its space functions to a new service, Defense News reported Monday. That memo estimated that such a transition could cost up to $13 billion over the next five years, including an initial $3 billion just to stand up the service.

Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson told reporters on Tuesday that $13 billion was on the “conservative” side of current budget estimates.

Shanahan, who was previously the senior vice president for supply chain and operations at Boeing [BA] before becoming the deputy defense secretary in 2017, said that there have been “arm-wrestling contests” to decide how much separation to maintain between the warfighter and the acquisition process for the Space Force.

“Maybe we should have more separation, and you’ll see that’s kind of where the debate is,” he said, adding, “the process that we’re going through is to put together a plan that we carry forward in a legislative proposal, and what I would tell you is there is no group think at the Pentagon,” he said.

The FY ‘20 budget will also reflect the Pentagon’s efforts to test and field the next generation of weapons to counter new capabilities being developed by China and Russia, with an emphasis on demonstrating critical technologies such as hypersonics, Shanahan said.

“Today we are working across the services and with industry to demonstrate the test technologies listed in the (fiscal year 2018) national defense strategy before we move rapidly to field them,” he said.

The Pentagon must also begin to develop a sustainment program for the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, Shanahan noted.

“We are in the front end of the program, which means we can still set the bar high when it comes to sustainment,” he said. “But the time is now. It’s tonight, not next year.”

The U.S. military must begin to formulate plans to improve the aircraft’s combat mission capability rates, operating costs and depot supply chain performance, he noted. The Pentagon has “years of stable production in front of us,” and must learn how to achieve cost savings, such as by reducing software development flowtime and time for tests and certifications, ahead of that production timeline, he added.

“The F-35 is our future. The standards of performance we set today and the improvements we make will ensure its lethality and affordability for years to come,” he said.