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Overnight Defense: Senators show skepticism over Space Force | Navy drops charges against officers in deadly collision | Trump taps next Navy chief
Happy Thursday and welcome to Overnight Defense. I'm Ellen Mitchell, and here's your nightly guide to the latest developments at the Pentagon, on Capitol Hill and beyond. CLICK HERE to subscribe to the newsletter.
THE TOPLINE: Members of the Senate Armed Services Committee from both parties on Thursday aired their skepticism about President Trump's Space Force proposal as Pentagon brass sought to defend the plan.
At a hearing on the proposal, senator after senator questioned whether adding bureaucracy could have the opposite of its intended effect to improve the military's operations in space.
"When we first heard about the proposal I asked two simple questions: What will the organization fix, and how much will it cost?" committee Chairman James Inhofe (R-Okla.) said in his opening statement. "It's come out of the administration that this is going to be a $2 billion program. So, for my purposes, I'm going to assume that's right. But I'm still waiting for the answer for the other question."
The administration's argument: The skeptical questioning for acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford, Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson and Strategic Command chief Gen. John Hyten underscores the difficulty Trump faces in getting what has become one of his top defense priorities across the finish line.
Arguing that threats from other countries necessitate a greater focus from the military on space, the Trump administration has proposed creating a Space Force within the Department of the Air Force. That would make the Space Force's relationship to the Air Force similar to that of the Marine Corps to the Navy.
Pentagon officials argued a separate military branch for space is inevitable as Russia and China increasingly look to space for military purposes.
"Five years from now is going to look much different," Shanahan said. "I think sometimes we look through the lens of today and we extrapolate going forward."
Skepticism remains: But Thursday's hearing made clear senators remain skeptical.
"I guess we need some convincing that there is a necessity for a sixth branch," Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) said.
Should Congress approve the proposal, Space Force headquarters would be set up within 90 days, and the service would be fully operational by 2024, Wilson told senators.
House lawmakers in both parties are generally supportive of the idea of a Space Force under Air Force purview but have expressed concerns about some specifics of the Trump proposal, such as how many new four-star generals would be created.
Questions unanswered: Senators, though, have been deeply dubious of the need for a new service. The reason a House-passed plan in 2017 for a space corps did not become a reality was because of fierce opposition in the Senate.
There were several questions about whether establishing a Space Force would bifurcate space from the other services, thereby undermining the "jointness" the military touts as an imperative.
"In Maine, there are certain basic principles of life. One is, you don't drive on the ice after April 15th. Second is, you hate the Yankees. And third is, if it ain't broke, don't fix it," Sen. Angus King (I-Maine) said, adding he does not think the Pentagon's current approach is broken.
King and others questioned why a Space Command, which the Pentagon is also moving to establish, would not be sufficient.
"Can you explain why we need to put all space assets, space forces into a separate service as opposed to a combatant command?" Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) asked. "Unless, as Sen. King said, we're going to have a large number of actual soldiers in space fighting and they need a different set of skills, this is primarily going to be about technology and acquisitions and so forth. So,. I think what a lot of us on the committee are trying to figure out is what's the incremental advantage of having a separate space force."
NAVY DROPPING CHARGES AGAINST OFFICERS IN DEADLY 2017 COLLISION: The Navy is dropping the charges against the former commanding officer and a junior officer of the USS Fitzgerald in connection with the destroyer's deadly 2017 collision.
Instead, Cmdr. Bryce Benson and Lt. Natalie Combs will receive letters of censure from Navy Secretary Richard Spencer, the Navy said in a news release late Wednesday.
"This decision is in the best interest of the Navy, the families of the Fitzgerald sailors and the procedural rights of the accused officers," the release said. "Both officers were previously dismissed from their jobs and received non-judicial punishment."
A refresher: In June 2016, the Fitzgerald collided with a Philippine-flagged container ship southwest of Japan, killing seven sailors.
The crash was one of the two that summer that prompted an outcry on Capitol Hill.
The other was the crash of the USS John S. McCain in August 2017 that left 10 sailors dead.
Benson and Combs were originally charged in early 2018 with negligent homicide, dereliction of duty and negligent hazarding of a vessel. The Navy dropped the negligent homicide charges in June 2018.
Reforms 'on track': In its statement, the Navy said the effort to improve readiness and training for sailors that resulted from the crash "remains on track."
"The Navy will always keep the lost Sailors and their families in its thoughts and prayers," the statement said.
TRUMP NOMINATES NEXT NAVY CHIEF: President Trump has nominated the current vice chief of the Navy to be the service's top officer, the Navy announced Thursday.
If confirmed, Adm. Bill Moran would take over for Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson, who is expected to retire this summer after the change of command.
"I'm honored and deeply humbled by the nomination and look forward to working with Congress during the confirmation process," Moran said in a statement.
Moran's background: Moran has been the vice chief of naval operations since May 2016. Prior to serving in that role, he was the chief of naval personnel.
Moran is one of several recent nominations of high-ranking officers as the Joint Chiefs of Staff turn over as part of regular rotations. Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Milley and Strategic Command commander Gen. John Hyten were nominated this week to the chairman and vice chairman, respectively, of the Joint Chiefs.
Other nominations: The Pentagon also previously announced the nominations of Lt. Gen. David Berger to be the next Marine Corps commandant and Gen. James McConville to be the next Army chief of staff.
TRUMP TO CELEBRATE D-DAY ANNIVERSARY IN FRANCE: President Trump said Thursday he plans to travel to France in June to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the D-Day landings along the Normandy coast.
"I'll be there," Trump said during an Oval Office meeting with World War II veterans after one of them asked if the president would attend the planned June 6 anniversary ceremonies.
It would be Trump's third trip to France as president.
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