The Senate Armed Services Committee heard testimony last week from Acting Secretary of Defense Pat Shanahan, Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson, Marine General Joe Dunford (Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff), and Air Force General John Hyten (Commander of U.S. Strategic Command and the presumptive next Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs).

The witnesses presented unified support for the creation of the Space Force. Secretary Wilson, notably, voiced support for the proposal, which would put the new Space Force under the Air Force.  That structure mimics the design of the Marine Corps and the Department of the Navy; Wilson acknowledged that she had previously been critical of proposals that would establish a new independent department for space.  From the perspective of continuity, the key testimony came from General Hyten; both Wilson and Dunford are lame ducks, and Shanahan’s nomination for Secretary remains uncertain.  Many of the Senators voiced concerns about the fundamental need for a Space Force and the significant bureaucratic expansion contemplated by the proposal.

It was clear from the hearing that the Administration and the Department still have much to do to market this Space Force proposal to the Congress.  Given the reactions so far, it is extremely unlikely to be included as written in the Fiscal Year 2020 National Defense Authorization Act. While Congress continues to debate the proposal, now is the window to engage with the congressional defense committees with comments on the proposal and suggestions for how to modify it.

Most Members Undecided on Space Force:  Chairman Inhofe began the hearing by emphasizing that, unlike most hearings, the Members were open-minded on the subject and most were undecided.  The statements of the Members throughout the hearing supported this characterization.  Freshmen Senators Blackburn and Cramer made the strongest statements of support for creating a Space Force, while many of the Democratic members of the Armed Services Committee, including Ranking Member Reed, Senator Warren, and Senator Manchin aired concerns about the bureaucracy, necessity, and function of establishing a Space Force in the manner proposed by the Administration.  More senior Republican Senators voiced similar concerns, indicating that the debate is not simply a partisan response to the President’s push for a Space Force.

Members Share Several Key Concerns:  Chairman Inhofe and Ranking Member Reed opened the hearing by highlighting concerns that repeatedly came up during questioning.  Specifically, Chairman. Inhofe focused his concerns to two issues:  (1) whether the proposal solves a specific problem; and (2) how much it will cost the taxpayers (the Administration estimates an initial cost of $2 billion).  Reed flagged several additional issues that arose throughout the hearing: (1) the top-heaviness of the proposed Space Force’s manning; (2) the need for a separate Under Secretary (the Marine Corps does not have its own Under Secretary); (3) the “net-zero” sourcing of the Space Force with predominantly Air Force officers; (4) the lack of an identified role for the National Guard and Reserve; (5) the proposal for a new personnel system, which would, among other things, exempt civilian employees from collective bargaining; and (6) the failure to address the role of the National Reconnaissance Office (“NRO”) in DoD’s proposal. Other Senators shared similar concerns, with Senators Ernst and Sullivan drilling down  on how populating the Space Force with end strength authorization reductions from other services would cut into those services’ readiness capabilities and possibly “hollow out” other services.

Impetus for the Space Force:  The witnesses were aligned on the strategic concerns driving the need for a Space Force.  General Dunford explained that U.S. adversaries (primarily China and Russia) are increasingly developing new capabilities to target U.S. assets, and the United States needs a new organizational structure calibrated for maintaining its competitive edge in space.  Shanahan emphasized that the current system does not move fast enough to develop and implement the capabilities the United States needs to maintain its margin of dominance in space.  Wilson noted that the United States needs to change the acquisition system for space assets from the Cold War model, which requires a dedicated Space Force.  Finally, Hyten admitted that as the Combatant Commander of U.S. Strategic Command, space can never be higher than his third priority.  He argued that in addition to Space Command, which Air Force General Jay Raymond has been nominated to lead, the United States needs a Space Force as a more efficient warfighting structure.

Issues with Proposed Manning:  Wilson addressed the concern that the proposed Space Force was too top-heavy by citing its leader’s position as a member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff: an appropriate number of staff must be available to support that position.  She also explained that about half of the proposed headquarters personnel would actually be working on professional development issues for the force.  Similarly, an Under Secretary would be necessary to lead the new service’s accelerated timeline for change.  While the Space Force would pull mainly from the Air Force for manpower, the witnesses suggested that the new service would quickly develop its own culture, but that the services would still operate as a joint force.

Lack of a Plan for National Guard/Reserve:  Dunford explained that DoD had two options for developing a plan for how the National Guard and Reserve would integrate as part of the Space Force:  (1) spend time attempting to create the perfect structure first; or (2) stand up the organization and let its new leadership address the issue.  DoD’s proposal took the second approach. None of the Senators who discussed this issue seemed supportive of DoD’s punt.  For this reason, National Guard and Reserve leaders have been openly critical of the Space Force.

Role of the NRO and the Civilian Personnel System:  Shanahan explained that DoD modeled the proposed personnel system on the system used at the NRO. The NRO was granted special authorities by Congress to ensure that highly qualified scientific personnel could be identified and hired rapidly in order for the office to compete for the top talent needed for its mission.  However, Shanahan faced skeptical questions from Senator Blumenthal about the ways in which the Space Force personnel rules would erode the general merit-based civil service, why the proposal eliminated collective bargaining rights, or whether the system would offer protection for whistleblowers. Shanahan offered little additional normative justification, beyond an interest in smooth integration with the NRO and its model.  He did commit to additional follow-up, and we expect the manpower decisions to be significant points of debate as the proposal develops.  At the same time, Shanahan explained that the Space Force proposal was biased towards speed and only represented what DoD controlled — the NRO is not yet integrated with it.  DoD has had discussions with NRO about the potential for integration with the Space Force; however, DoD is aiming to “align” with NRO first and work towards “integration” in later stages.