Senate Grills Military Brass on Plans for US Space Force

High-ranking military officials testify Thursday before the Senate Armed Services Committee.

WASHINGTON (CN) – Backing their call for $13.8 billion to launch the U.S. Space Force as a separate branch of the U.S. military, Pentagon officials faced an uphill battle Thursday in trying to get the Senate on board.

Acting Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan repeatedly emphasized in his testimony this morning that, while the move to modernize and stand up a new military force for the first time in 70 years was daunting, the race to militarize space is on — and the U.S. must make certain it isn’t left behind.  

“We must make sure we have war-fighting operations in a contested environment,” Shanahan said, pointing to efforts. By Russia and China, namely, to dominate low-Earth orbit with surveillance and reconnaissance satellites.

Among other features, such operations have the ability to jam cyber networks, direct energy weapons and even target ground-based anti-satellite missiles. 

“Space is no longer a sanctuary,” said General Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chief of Staff, another witness invited to address the Senate Armed Services Committee today.

Senator Gary Peters meanwhile reminded the panel about testimony given last year from U.S. Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson.

Among other things, Wilson told lawmakers the “Pentagon was complicated enough,” and that the addition of the Space Force would only “add more boxes and cost more money.” 

“If I had more money, I’d put it into lethality not bureaucracy,”

Wilson said, as quoted by Peters.

The Michigan Democrat pressed the witnesses on how why they now think the 16,500-member force feasible.

“When there are so many other needs in the economy, I want to hear how you now think you can do all of this efficiently and defend American interests in a cost-effective way,” Peters said.

Wilson answered that the Space Force proposal was chosen over other options, like the model of the U.S. Navy’s Judge Advocate General Corps or an independent, stand-alone department, “because it would reduce duplication in budgeting, acquisition, finance and personnel.”

Senator Angus King of Maine seemed skeptical, however, that the government has sufficiently justified creating a “new bureaucracy that would cost half a billion a year.”

“Couldn’t a combatant command be enough,” he asked. “Couldn’t it take the place of force operations like recruitment or training?”

Shanahan testified today that the amount of “bandwidth” needed to deliver the technical capabilities on schedule and at budget for space defense missions, intelligence and other various activities would simply overburden a combatant command center alone. 

General John Hyten, commander of U.S. Strategic Command, urged the committee to consider a future where the country needs to manufacture and distribute hypersonic weapons.

“The Space Force structure would likely be the center that would handle this, but with input from other services,” he said.

Input would almost certainly come from General John Raymond, whom President Donald Trump nominated last month to lead the Air Force Space Command, an office established in 1982. 

As envisioned by the Trump administration, the U.S. Space Force would fall under the umbrella of the Department of the Air Force. Operations and communication would flow to Secretary Wilson, who would also share that information with a separate newly established chief of staff for the space force. 

It is unclear if Air Force Space Command would dissolve altogether, but General Raymond would otherwise serve in both capacities. A representative from the U.S. Air Force did not immediately return request for comment.

Though the Department of Defense is the responsible now for establishing new combatant commands, the power to prop up new armed forces ultimately falls to Congress.

Senator Tim Kaine threw tentative support behind the proposed Space Force but sought clarity Thursday about what the military would do to address the increasing problem of low-Earth orbit debris – specifically, debris from rogue satellites, defunct equipment or others fragments hurtling through the atmosphere. 

In March, India test launched an anti-satellite weapon resulting in 400 pieces of debris  – two dozen of which are large enough to pose a threat to the International Space Station. China did the same in 2007 when its anti-satellite test created more than 2,000 pieces of space debris, objects which are still within earth’s orbit today.

General Hyten said the debris can interrupt flight patterns and collide with costly and important equipment, but he told lawmakers that this growing celestial trash heap raises a bigger question: why did India and China test anti-satellite weapons anyway?

“They did it because they are concerned about threats to their nation from space or feel they must defend themselves in space,” Hyten said.

To answer the senator’s question, Hyten said there are no existing international norms guiding disposal of debris in space. 

Kaine acknowledged then that rules establishing fair play are usually written by those who already have the technology.

“And sometimes debris fields are created on purpose,” said Kaine, a Virginia Democrat. “Too much debris makes it difficult to launch equipment, operate or maneuver around.”  

The United Nations already has a panel that guides the peaceful uses of outer space. As the U.S. moves closer to propping up an independent space force and command, however, Hyten urged lawmakers to put America in a leadership role.

“We should work with our allies, internationally, to define what we believe the norms of behavior in space should be,” Hyten said.

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