Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.), shown here at a December 2018 Defense Writers Group breakfast, spoke with journalists at a June 10, 2019, edition of the same event. George Washington University School of Media and Public Affairs photo via Flickr.
The House Armed Services Committee will consider an amendment to create a new military space organization as it marks up its 2020 defense policy bill June 12, according to the panel’s chairman.
Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.) told reporters at a June 10 Defense Writers Group breakfast that although the debate continues over how exactly a Space Force or Corps might function within the Pentagon, he doesn’t “trust the Air Force on its own, within its existing structure, to properly prioritize space.”
“I think the Air Force has not done a particularly good job of managing space,” he said. “I think they’ve mucked up launch in a variety of different ways. … They look after nuclear weapons, they care about air superiority and bombers, and then they care about space.”
Committee members—particularly Democrats and Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Ala.), who shepherded an initial Space Corps plan in the House two years ago—couldn’t agree on a way forward until it was too late to include Space Force language in the chairman’s version of the legislation, Smith said. But a compromise amendment resembles the Space Corps proposal HASC passed in 2017, which was later stripped from the 2018 National Defense Authorization Act.
HASC’s idea is more cost effective and streamlined than the Trump administration’s proposal, Smith argues.
“We don’t have three four-stars, we only have the one,” he said. “There is a lot less … mandatory transfers of personnel into the Space [Force]. It’s going to be smaller and more focused, in our view, but along the lines of what they proposed two years ago to try to pull those pieces together and make it sort of a separate piece from the rest of the Air Force.”
It’s still unclear how space personnel in the other branches would interact with the Space Force, which is intended to organize, train, and equip space operators.
A senior committee aide told reporters during a June 7 background briefing it has taken more time to come to an agreement because HASC is comprised of different members with different views than it was when it first backed a Space Corps. That corps would sit within the Air Force like the Trump administration is now proposing for a Space Force, although the President’s ultimate goal is that the Space Force become a separate department.
Smith isn’t sure how the House and Senate, which would transform Air Force Space Command into a new space management entity, will find a middle ground between their proposals. On a subject now fraught with political nuance, he argues the federal government must look past partisanship and do what’s best for the military space enterprise. The objective is to find the best way to approach the problem, not to worry about whether the legislation gives the President a “win,” he said.
“This is not President Trump’s idea,” Smith said. “Don’t think of this as, well, if you’re for the Space Force, that means you 100 percent support President Trump. We were talking about this long before I think the President even knew Space Force could possibly have existed. He grabbed onto it, talked about it, but this isn’t about him.”
When asked whether the House language would designate the Space Force as a revamped major command, something akin to the Marine Corps, or something else, Smith said that debate continues.
“Those discussions will be ongoing until we get through all of this,” he said.
He pointed to the National Security Space Launch program as an example of where he believes the Air Force has fallen short on space policy. The chairman’s mark includes language that would require the service to offer up to $500 million to launch services providers that win a contract after fiscal 2022 to put national security payloads on orbit, or to winners that are not already part of a launch services agreement—namely, SpaceX—in the program’s second phase.
Smith believes the Air Force has focused on the United Launch Alliance, its legacy launch provider, for too long and could have saved taxpayer dollars by opening launch competitions to SpaceX earlier. He said the Air Force argues it doesn’t have extra money to offer SpaceX at this point if it is chosen to continue in the NSSL competition.
“That makes no sense whatsoever because all three of the companies that were awarded bids have gotten $180 million,” Smith said. “If ULA gets picked, ULA is going to get another $740 million, Northrop is going to get another $500 [million] and something, and Blue Origin would get another $320 [million], and now, with my language, SpaceX would get roughly $500 [million]. It really doesn’t change the money, and I think it’s only fair.”
If chosen, SpaceX would deserve the funding it didn’t get earlier in the program to ensure it can meet national security requirements like the others, the chairman said.
If the NSSL program orders more than 29 launches, Smith also wants the Air Force to compete those launches to companies other than the two Phase 2 winners. The Air Force’s current plan is to buy 34 launches between 2020 and 2024 for itself and other organizations, including the Navy, the National Reconnaissance Office, and the Missile Defense Agency. That would trigger Smith’s competition clause, although the actual number of launches procured may range from 20 to 50.
“Why they’re trying to kill this and so upset about it, I still haven’t gotten a clear answer,” Smith said, noting he’s in conversation with Acting Air Force Secretary Matt Donovan and Acquisition Executive Will Roper. “I think what we’re doing here is perfectly consistent with the goals of the Phase 2 launch competition.”
Proponents of the Air Force’s two-winner strategy say widening the field to more than two companies would mean each contractor wouldn’t have enough work to make their participation worthwhile. The program aims to broaden the number of companies that could launch the military and intelligence community’s satellites and sensors, add more commercial players to the mix, and develop reusable rockets.
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