WASHINGTON — Should there be a separate service for space? The House Armed Services’ Strategic Forces subcommittee is one of the entities on Congress that will shape the debate over a Space Force, and Rep. Jim Cooper, D-Tenn., has been an outspoken supporter of carving out a space service from the Air Force
Cooper, along with Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Ala, was one of the architects of the Space Corps proposal that seems to be a model for President Donald Trump’s call to build a Space Force. Despite the Republican president’s takeover of the idea, Cooper still supports the Space Force — but intends Congress to have a hand in building it.
Cooper spoke with Defense News this March about the issues his subcommittee will tackle this year.
So what are your major priorities for the strategic forces subcommittee?
Keeping Space Corps going, and you know, it's called Space Force [now]. We'll continue the Rogers-Cooper priority from last time.
Then we need to keep our nuclear capability the strongest in the world; there can be modifications to that. Missile defense is always an exciting area, and a lot is happening there, but that’s mainly making sure the technical capability that everyone wants can be achieved. There are a lot of engineering issues there that we face.
You just seemed to draw a line between the Cooper-Rogers Space Corps versus Space Force. In your mind, are these different things? Are you pleased with the way that you see Space Force moving?
Well, the president obviously hijacked our proposal and exaggerated it. Now it’s returning back to the centrist proposal that it always was. You know that this passed the HASC last year, 60-1; had overwhelming House support. We still had to work on some of our Senate colleagues, but the good part of the president’s intervention is I hope it will persuade some of the Republican Senate to come our way, people who had been skeptical. But I really haven’t met a skeptic who’s been to all the briefs, all the threat briefs, and unfortunately we can’t talk a lot about that, but it should be apparent after the Chinese ’07 ASAT test, and things like that we should been more alert to.
Another helpful part of the president’s intervention has been the reversal in attitude on the Air Force, at least on the surface, cause now they’re much more welcoming of the approach. So Mike[Rogers] and I had always wanted a space capability within the Air Force. We did not want it to be outside the Air Force; we want to play nicely with others, and it’s a graduated process. I think one day it will be an entirely separate department, but not in the short run.
The legislative proposal included an estimated cost of $2 billion over the next five years. Are you satisfied with that number? Do you think that is going to be acceptable to members of the committee?
It’s a much more modest number than [Air Force Secretary] Heather Wilson had put out there a few months ago, but we ... Mike [Rogers] and I were thinking she was gold-plating the proposal and still walking it back at the same time, so I’m much happier with these numbers. You can certainly fine-tune them.
I only saw the proposal about ... half an hour ago. I just went through the slides, so there will be a lot of work to figure out where the bodies are buried. The key thing is we just need a superior capability quickly, and there are different paths to that goal.
Connected to Space Force, of course, is the idea of creating the Space Development Agency. Within the Defense Department that is the idea that is creating the most conflict between Office of the Secretary of Defense and the Air Force, and Secretary Wilson remarked that there’s still a question over whether SDA is really needed given all of the changes that have happened to SMC. What are your thoughts about this?
What we know doesn’t work is the regular acquisition process. … It’s the ultimate definition of red tape. So I don’t fault Shanahan or others for saying, “Hey, this is the way to go,” and I’m not surprised at Air Force opposition because the Air Force has been opposed to virtually everything that’s been proposed to enhance space capability, which tends to erode their credibility.
Do you think that Space Force is going to hit a large opposition in Congress, and will that be driven by President Trump’s involvement?
Well, I’m hopeful that the president did not hopelessly politicize the issue when the Republican campaign committee announced a competition for the best space patch. I thought that was a terrible development, because this has always been nonpartisan, you know? It’s very rare for even the HASC to have a 60-1 vote on something, so we’re trying to keep it nonpartisan, and hopefully Trump’s involvement, especially now that the actual proposal is much more like our original proposal, hopefully that will de-politicize it.
The formation of US Space Command seems like it’s going to happen. Space Force is something that is potentially on the table. Do you think the military has enough leadership in space, the right leaders in space right now, to actually make these changes stick?
Oh, there’s plenty of talent in the Air Force. I just hope that current leadership is not too turf-conscious and too focused on the past. We’ve got to focus on the future and focus on being number one without any close rivals. That should be the goal, and we’re capable of achieving anything; we just have to be organized and focused.
So moving on to nuclear modernization, the chairmen of HASC and SASC are opposed in terms of the size of the nuclear arsenal that they would like to see, so how do you think that process is going to play out within the HASC mark-up and then moving onto Congress?
It’s too early to say. They certainly speak for themselves, and they have far more power than I do. I like to get the precise, though; it’s really not nuclear modernization. It’s kind of preserving the capability that we’ve had for decades and making sure that it doesn’t expire. You know, these are actually called life extension programs. That sounds to me more like a nursing home for weapons than any sort of delivery of brand-new baby weapons. As for the low yield, you know, we’ve always had the ability to dial down yield on weapons, and a number of those are already in our inventory. You also have to factor in ... every administration tries to do two things: They try to look stronger than their predecessor, and then they to discretely badmouth their predecessor, so you have to ask of all the ways that this administration, which is one of the more bullying administrations in history, whether they chose a modern way to do that or an extreme way to do that, and different observers can draw different conclusions, but this could be a modern way to do that because there are other extreme actions or proposals that John Bolton is capable or not in this mix, at least so far.
Do you feel like some of your role is helping to convince the Democrats that this is actually a very moderate way forward, and that things could be much more extreme?
Well, remember, with nuclear weapons you have to be precise. You want zero mistakes, so I think a large part of the process is not persuasion; it’s just education, and people need to learn enough about our stockpile so that they are able to judge for themselves, without any political spin, what’s going on.
All I want is for my colleagues to understand what's going on here; then you don't have to persuade them. Now, it is true for delivery systems that we need new bombers and we need new subs. We need things like that, but why is that? Because I am already embarrassed that our B-52s are so old, and I am humiliated that the current Air Force plans has those planes being flown when they're 100 years old. On the one hand that's a great testament to the engineering, the design that was done back when the planes were built, but previous congresses failed to invest in worthy delivery systems. Periodically you have to get new delivery systems, and I also fault the Air Force because some of their prior acquisitions have not stood the test of time like the B-52 has. And undoubtedly other decisions were made that didn't serve the country well, so our job, while we're on duty now, is to make wise decisions for the security and the future of not only the US, 'cause that's the terrible thing about nuclear weapons: We're talking about the whole world here. We can't afford to have a mishap of any kind, so that's why we really have to focus on the education part and get this right, and make sure that every member of sub-committee and the full committee and Congress makes sound decisions.
You are making the case that there’s so much at every level that needs to be looked at with the nuclear enterprise, so much that has been deferred, that hasn’t been replaced necessarily when it should have been. So how do you rack and stack your priorities in terms of what needs to be modernized? You know, not just the delivery systems but also looking at the NC3 warheads, things like that?
I think in general the 2010 defense document had it right, and that was an Obama-era document that the Trump team has largely adopted, so that should be, again, bipartisan, nonpartisan. So many people who are coming to these issues for the first time look at bumper sticker slogans or simple answers that are sometimes wrong. All I ask for is complete and thorough education so that when decision time comes, those decisions will be sound. We’re trying to get the sub-committee up to speed. There are many veteran members, but there are also some newcomers, and part of the process is it’s hard to read just books on this, and I’m a big book person but it’s helpful to go to some of the federal labs, see what’s going on and understand the weapons cycle and things.
I mean, you talk about educating the members of your sub-committee, but the top member of HASC right now has sort of come out very skeptical of any growth in the nuclear arsenal, and skeptical of some modernization pursuits, so how do you address that?
Well, Adam is a great chairman and he does a superb job of representing his district and country. We will have a lot of discussions about this 'cause there are different perimeters. You have characterized his beliefs one way; only he can do that for himself.
B-21 is something that we obviously don’t hear a lot about as it’s a classified program, but can you give any insight into how you think that program is going? And you mentioned before about how the Air Force is planning to keep the B-52s possibly going for a hundred years, so in your mind does that necessitate the possibly of looking at whether that program, the B-21 program, should be expanded?
Well, mercifully the B-21 is under the seapower subcommittee’s jurisdiction. I’m also on that sub-committee, but my general worry is that Air Force has had major difficulty with major weapon systems acquisitions for decades, so I hope the B-21 will be different. I don’t want to pre-judge, but if history is prologue, then we have a lot to worry about, 'cause we had a B-1, we had a B-2, and those are very interesting platforms, but they’re not talking about a B-3, and the Air Force had trouble with the tanker acquisition. The F-35 has been highly controversial. It’s kind of amazing; you would think every generation would have its own superb weapons system that we can all be proud of, and that hasn’t necessarily happened.
What are your thoughts on the low yield nuclear weapons that were proposed as part of the Nuclear Posture Review?
Well, I think the jury is still out right now. Once members have a chance to see what we’ve already had in that field, they might think that was sufficient. And see, remember, too, that in this media age, in every report there’s gotta be something that’s controversial. See, I asked earlier the question, was this the minimum level of controversy, or could it have been worse? If you have a perspective on things then you can realize that whoever is in the next administration, they’ll have the same attitude. Every administration has the same attitude, so you have to kind of take that with a grain of salt and two aspirin.
What did you think of the Missile Defense Review?
My issue with Missile Defense is we've gotta make sure it works, so it's not a question of going to your catalog and wanting to buy new systems or features. You gotta make sure it works.
Now, shorter-range things, we love Patriot. We love THAAD. We’re so proud of Israeli systems, but that’s very different than what we’re talking about here, so this is yet another area where we need to help our Air Force friends field better systems, faster.
The review included a lot of very sophisticated, never-been-done type of technologies, thinks like space-based interceptors.
That’s what I call shopping from the catalog, and there’s no more Sears Roebuck catalog.
The physics has to be doable. The scientists and engineers have to be capable of designing it, and it turns out to be pretty hard, and we're devoting magnificent resources to the solution.
What would you like to see from the Defense Department to prove that they are getting success on these current programs and that these ideas that they have for missile defense could potentially work in the future, that these are not just overly ambitious money holes?
All we need is long succession of direct hits. Even our testing pace isn’t very robust, you know? In some areas, some of our potential adversary nations are testing 10, 20 times a year, and our tempo isn’t nearly so quick.
You know, of course, that the military would turn around and say, “That takes money.”
Congress has, in general, given the military what they want. Now, I’m not including sequestration in this; that was a continued outrage for many years. Military was totally right to point out that the Congress was their number one enemy in the world with sequestration, and we’re still not out of the woods yet, but in general we have had the largest defense budget in the world, by far larger than probably the next seven to 10 nations combined.
None of our folks would ever wanna trade places with any other nation's budget, so in general we've had far more resources than anyone else on Earth, so the question is what we've done with that. And undoubtedly, a lot of money has been squandered.
What are your thoughts on how the sequestration dilemma might resolve itself this year?
That’s above my pay grade, but it absolutely has to be solved. We cannot afford to do that again.
Valerie Insinna was Defense News' air warfare reporter. Beforehand, she worked the Navy and congressional beats for Defense Daily, which followed almost three years as a staff writer for National Defense Magazine. Prior to that, she worked as an editorial assistant for the Tokyo Shimbun’s Washington bureau.