I think it’s fair to say that $13 billion is a fairly eye-popping number.
First, let’s address the leaked U.S. Air Force estimate that creating a Space Force as a new military service would cost $13 billion over the first five years. The Air Force has an interest in the release of the cost estimate for establishing a Space Force; as some experts have claimed, the service would likely bear the brunt of the costs, and probably wants to get ahead of it now rather than later.
It is also interesting the leak happened at the same time that Secretary Heather Wilson pitched her goal to boost the number of operational squadrons from 312 to 386 — a change that would also cost a good amount.
The cynic in me would guess that releasing these two bits of information at once could be a subtle attempt to get Congress to consider a budget boost for the service. Or perhaps Secretary Wilson is not as behind Space Force as she claimed to be at the Defense News Conference, and hopes the estimate will cause Congress to pull the brakes.
Hard to say.
Regardless of the motivation behind the leak or even whether the number is a fair estimate, we’re now seeing a more practical dialogue about whether we need a Space Force.
So do we?
Let’s recall how the concept was first floated. In March, speaking at Marine Corps Air Station Miramar, President Donald Trump shared a story about how he recently thought to himself: “Maybe we need a new force” to support all the work happening in space.
“I was not really serious,” he said. “Then I said: ‘What a great idea. Maybe we’ll have to do that. That could happen.’ ”
This was not a solution to a problem per se. This was, as Trump clearly stated, recognition that space is a war-fighting domain. And at its core, the proposal for a Space Corps is a reorganization. It’s taking capabilities distributed across different offices and agencies, mainly within the Air Force, and putting them under a single umbrella, with its own leadership structure.
The question then becomes whether such a reorganization is worth $13 billion. Or even considerably less for that matter.
Consider when Congress created the Department of Homeland Security in 2002. Obviously, as a stand-alone, Cabinet-level department, the establishment of DHS was a far bigger undertaking than another branch of service. But it too was a reorganization at its core — created through the integration of all or part of 22 different federal departments and agencies.
But here’s the difference: With DHS there was clearly a problem to solve. The attacks on 9/11 demonstrated quite painfully that the United States lacked the ability or the inclination to effectively share intelligence. Counterterrorism efforts were not coordinated. And those factors combined were creating an undeniable risk.
Again, and in contrast, a Space Force does not offer a solution to a particular problem. Yes, more attention needs to be paid to space as a domain of warfare. Investments need to happen to better respond to and defend against space-based threats, and to harness the opportunities that space presents for our own warfare capabilities.
But there has been little indication that any agency involved in space is functioning in a vacuum. For that matter, space responsibilities are already pretty centralized. And there isn’t any indication that pulling all space resources under a single “separate but equal” umbrella will suddenly improve or dramatically enhance how the Department of Defense addresses the space domain.
More focus and attention is needed. But could that not be achieved by way of a new combatant command for space, as established under the 2019 National Defense Authorization Act?
Really, what difference does it make, aside from an added layer of bureaucracy?
Of course, we don’t know what we don’t know. Until the actual proposal comes to fruition, likely in early 2019, we can only assume what a Space Force would look like.
But in the words of Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., “I don’t know what you get for $13 billion.”
Jill Aitoro is editor of Defense News. She is also executive editor of Sightline Media's Business-to-Government group, including Defense News, C4ISRNET, Federal Times and Fifth Domain. She brings over 15 years’ experience in editing and reporting on defense and federal programs, policy, procurement, and technology.