Is Congress Creating a Military Space Corps?
Q1: What is the proposal to create a Space Corps?
A1: One of the most contentious issues in this year’s National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) is a proposal to create a new military service for space. Section 1601 of the House version of the defense authorization bill includes language that would have created a Space Corps within the Department of the Air Force, similar to how the Marine Corps is an independent service within the Department of the Navy. The primary responsibility of the Space Corps would be to organize, train, and equip military space forces. However, Section 6605 of the Senate version of the defense authorization bill contains a provision that expressly prohibits the creation of a Space Corps. Because of this difference, the Space Corps is one of the top issues for the conference committee.
Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson and Chief of Staff David Goldfein strongly oppose the creation of the Space Corps. The Air Force has argued that the current space organization is sufficient and does not require action by Congress. The principal DoD space advisor (PDSA) is currently headed by the secretary of the Air Force, and the Air Force is in the process of creating a new position known as the deputy chief of staff for space operations (or A11) to serve as an advocate for space. Some members of Congress, led by Representative Mike Rogers (R-AL), countered that the current PDSA office is ineffective and the creation of A11 is like putting “lipstick on a pig.”
Q2: How did the Senate and House resolve their differences on the Space Corps?
A2: The compromise that emerged from conference committee on November 8, 2017, does not create a Space Corps, but it does make many significant changes. First, it empowers Air Force Space Command as “the sole authority for organizing, training, and equipping,” all space forces within the Air Force. This gives Space Command additional authorities, but it remains within the Air Force and does not create a separate service. It also turns the Operationally Responsive Space Office into the Space Rapid Capabilities Office, reporting directly to Air Force Space Command.
Second, it eliminates the PDSA, the Defense Space Council, and the newly created A11. In its report, the conference committee notes that the PDSA served mainly an advisory role (as is evident in its name) and did not have decisionmaking authority. It further notes that the Defense Space Council was mainly a “bureaucratic forum” that was not part of the real decisionmaking process within the Department of Defense (DoD). In some of its strongest language, the committee report chides the Air Force for creating the A11 position, calling it “a hastily-developed half-measure instituted by the Air Force, which at best only added a box on the organizational chart.”
The third major change in the bill is that it gives the deputy secretary of defense, not the Air Force, the responsibility for the execution of the changes the bill makes. It also requires the deputy secretary to name an official to be responsible for the prioritization of space funding across the DoD budget, and it specifies that this official cannot be the secretary of the Air Force. The deputy secretary is also required to contract with an outside Federally Funded Research and Development Center that is not already affiliated with the Air Force to develop a “road map to establish a separate military department responsible for national security space.”
Q3: What does this mean for the Air Force?
A3: The bill is a clear rebuke of the current space organization within DoD, and the language and tone of the summary accompanying the bill suggests a lack of confidence in the Air Force leadership. The bill gives additional authorities to the commander of Air Force Space Command and the deputy secretary of defense, and it takes away significant roles and responsibilities from the Air Force secretary (such as the PDSA and Defense Space Council) and specifically prevents certain new functions from being delegated to the Air Force secretary.
Perhaps the most notable implication of this bill is that it lays the groundwork for the potential creation of a Space Corps in the future. The bill gives more responsibility and authority to Air Force Space Command for space acquisitions, resource management, requirements, war fighting, and personnel development. The intent of this appears to be to build a stronger space cadre and the nucleus of an organization that could operate as an independent service in the future. Moreover, the requirement to have an independent organization develop a road map for further reorganization is an indication that Congress may be considering larger changes than originally called for in the House version of the NDAA. The bill specifies that the road map would “establish a separate military department,” rather than a military service within the Department of the Air Force, and that it would encompass “national security space” rather than just Air Force space.
Q4: Why is the creation of a Space Corps being considered now?
A4: The current debate over space reorganization is motivated by a variety of operational, organizational, budgetary, and acquisition issues. Space is an increasingly important domain of modern warfare, and threats to national security space systems are proliferating. In a 2016 report, the Government Accountability Office found that space responsibilities were fragmented across some 60 organizations and that “no one seems to be in charge of space acquisitions.” Representative Rogers and others also have noted that while other parts of the Air Force’s budget have rebounded since FY 2013, space funding has not. In addition, many space acquisition programs have suffered from cost overruns and schedule delays, and the Air Force has repeatedly delayed its plans for follow-on satellite constellations for missile warning and protected satellite communications.
The idea to create a separate service for space, however, is not new. Many previous studies have examined space reorganization and recommended a variety of organizational changes, including the Allard Commission in 2008 and the Rumsfeld Space Commission in 2001. The Rumsfeld Space Commission concluded that, “in the mid term a Space Corps within the Air Force may be appropriate to meet this requirement; in the longer term it may be met by a military department for space.” Many organizational changes have been tried since then short of a Space Corps, such as the creation of a National Security Space Office (NSSO) and an executive agent for space. The NSSO was disestablished in 2010, and the executive agent for space morphed into the principal DoD space advisor.
Q5: Would any of these space reorganization proposals affect the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)?
A5: No. NASA is a civil space organization that focuses on science and space exploration. The Space Corps proposed in the House NDAA and the compromise reached by the conference committee only affect military space organizations. It would not affect NASA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), or any other civil agencies.
Todd Harrison is a senior fellow and director of the Aerospace Security Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.
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