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Senate emerges as obstacle to Trump’s 'Space Force'
The Senate has emerged as a major impediment to President Trump's hopes for a new "Space Force."
While the House GOP has been largely supportive of the idea of creating a new military branch for space, skeptics in the Senate from both parties have raised concerns about its cost - and the potential for adding to bureaucratic overhead at the Pentagon.
There's a recognition that players like China are increasingly turning to space, leaving a risk that the U.S. could be left behind. But there are also fears that it will turn into an expensive boondoggle.
"There is an absolute threat, and we need to figure out how to counter that," said Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa). "How do we make sure we're protecting taxpayer dollars and making sure they're most efficiently used while achieving that objective?"
Trump can't create the Space Force on his own. To actually create a new branch of the military, Congress will have to sign off, Vice President Pence acknowledged earlier this month in a speech at the Pentagon.
"Our administration is already working with leaders in the Congress to do just that," Pence said. "Next February, in the president's budget, we will call on the Congress to marshal the resources we need to stand up the Space Force. And before the end of next year, our administration will work with the Congress to enact the statutory authority for the Space Force in the National Defense Authorization Act."
How much that will cost is a big question for the Senate and the administration. Pence said the administration will request an initial $8 billion over five years for space acquisition. Deputy Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan said earlier this month that the Pentagon had not done a cost estimate yet, but that he assumed the new service would cost "billions."
The House has already taken some steps.
In 2017, it included a "space corps" in its initial version of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). But the provision was ultimately stripped out during negotiations with the Senate amid opposition from the upper chamber and the Pentagon.
The space corps and Space Force were similar - a separate branch of the military dedicated to space - but the corps would have technically been housed under the Department of the Air Force, in a manner similar to how the Marine Corps is housed under the Department of the Navy.
Rogers is ecstatic about the administration's Space Force plan, telling The Hill in a recent phone interview that "on a scale of 1 to 10, I'm about a 30."
He said he met with Shanahan before the House's August recess and spoke with him again when the Pentagon's space report was finalized.
But getting the Senate on board could be trickier.
Rogers said he thinks more senators will support the proposal now that the Pentagon is behind it. Still, he acknowledged some holdouts, blaming Air Force lobbying of that chamber for "poisoning the well."
Indeed, members of the Senate Armed Services Committee said recently they still have questions or are still opposed.
Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska) said he continues to be concerned now is not the time for a new service while the existing services are working to address readiness issues.
"Readiness has plummeted - plummeted - of the five services. We're finally rebuilding that," Sullivan said. "Where I've been focused is, hey, let's get the five services we currently have back to the readiness levels that the American people think we should have and that we're not at. Nobody thinks we're at the readiness level that we should be. And then once we get there, then we can talk about a space force."
Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.), the top Democrat on the committee, said the Pentagon first needs to do what was prescribed in this year's NDAA - namely to stand up a Space Command combatant command.
Asks if he expects Space Force to be a fight in next year's NDAA, Reed said "it very well might."
"The focus on creating a force misses a much broader point," Reed added. "That's the technological challenges we face through artificial intelligence, machine learning, quantum computing, the types of equipment that will be in space, under water, on the ground. How do we adapt that to our armed forces?"
"Those are some of the more fundamental issues that have to be addressed up front rather than just creating a new service with a new bureaucracy, new uniforms - that's not as relevant as facing the threats of today and anticipating the threats of tomorrow."
Still, there are signs senators may come around.
Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), a senior member of the Armed Services Committee who has been leading the panel in Chairman John McCain's (R-Ariz.) absence, has been skeptical of Space Force, but said in a recent statement to The Hill that he "will work with the President and DOD to consider all options for countering China and Russia in space as things continue to evolve and change."
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said he is "open-minded."
"I'm going to talk to Gen. Mattis about that, see what he thinks," Graham. "I'm open-minded. Do we really need another branch of the service? What would be the benefits of having a separate branch? Space is the final frontier, to borrow someone else's phrase. Can you do it within the existing military structure or do you need something new? I'd be curious to see what the military says about this."
Trump has the full-throated support of at least one committee member. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) said he thinks Space Force is a good idea.
"It's an issue that I have been emphasizing for some time," he said. "Our vulnerability in space and the increasing aggressiveness of our adversaries threatening our space architecture is significant and troubling and I applaud the administration elevating the focus on defending that space architecture."
Rogers said his committee is going to starting working on aspects of a space corps that they know the administration will need.
In addition to the Pentagon space report released this month, Congress last year required the department to contract with a federally funded research and development center (FFRDC) to come up with a plan for creating a Space Force. That report is due in December.
"My plan is to take [Shanahan's] proposal, the FFRDC design and what we worked up and draft legislation out that," Rogers said.
Roger's plan is to release a discussion draft in January before folding it into the NDAA later next year, he said. He and Cooper remain in "lockstep" on the plan, he added.
Because the House previously supported a separate branch of the military for space, Rogers said he is not expecting much opposition, even from Democrats who might otherwise be turned off by the president's involvement.
"Every Democrat member on my subcommittee has been in the classified briefs and knows exactly what China and Russia are doing and what our capabilities are and are not," he said. "That's also true of ranking member Adam Smith. He knows exactly. And the rest of the committee is taking their cue from them, the people in the know."