WASHINGTON — U.S. Sen. Gary Peters is skeptical about President Trump’s plan to establish a space force as a new branch of the military.
The Michigan Democrat told top Trump administration military officials at a hearing Thursday that he was wary of the idea, as senators on both sides of the aisle expressed concerns that the new force would add an unnecessary layer of bureaucracy.
“I don’t think there’s any disagreement from folks on the committee that space is something that we need to focus a great deal on,” said Peters, who serves on the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee.
“I think our question is whether this approach that we’re looking at is just going to add a lot more cost,” he said. “Bureaucratic organizations always grow. I’ve never seen a bureaucratic organization that actually shrinks.”
Military officials appeared on Capitol Hill to make a pitch for Trump’s plan. They told lawmakers that while the United States currently has a competitive advantage in space, nations including China and Russia are looking to exploit U.S. vulnerabilities. And they urged lawmakers to support a new program within the Air Force that focuses exclusively on deterring threats in space.
U.S. Sen. Angus King (I-Maine) said his impression was that the military was “doing a good job” already.
“We’re dominant in space right now,” he said. “I understand the threat and I understand our adversaries are moving forward, but I don’t understand how adding a box to an organizational chart is going to give us some kind of qualitative military edge.”
Gen. John Hyten, commander of U.S. Strategic Command, replied, “I think we have been doing a good job. But we’ve been doing a good job in an environment where space has not been contested. What is changing is we have adversaries that are building significant capabilities that can challenge us in space.”
Patrick Shanahan, Trump’s acting secretary of defense, warned senators in his written testimony that adversaries “now perceive space as a viable target to nullify our asymmetric advantages in other domains and gain a strategic foothold for future competition.”
The military officials suggested that it was a matter of time before the United States would need such a centralized force.
“We’re going to have a space force someday,” Hyten said. “I think what the committee has to decide is when is that going to happen. … You want to get ahead of the problem, not trail it, not come in response to a catastrophe.”
King stressed that he wasn’t sure adding a new box in the Defense Department’s organizational structure would have the intended effect.
“To create a new bureaucracy that’s going to cost us half-a-billion dollars a year, I’ve got to be convinced that there’s some incremental value there.”
The Defense Department estimated that once fully established, the new force would cost about $500 million annually.
Other senators on the Armed Services Committee — Republicans and Democrats alike — were skeptical of Trump’s proposal.
“None of the ideas I’ve heard today clearly spell out how a space force leads to improved security in space,” said U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.).
“Instead, all I see is how a new space force will create one more organization to ask Congress for money. And there’s no reason to believe that adding an entirely new space force bureaucracy and pouring buckets more money into it is going to reduce our overall vulnerability in space. I just think the taxpayers deserve better than this.”
U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) wondered whether the proposed approach was the best option. “I guess we need some convincing that there is a necessity for a sixth branch within our armed services,” she said.
Some Republicans on the panel were more open to the idea.
“I think president was right to make this a target that we need to achieve,” said U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.). “So to me, it’s not a matter of whether we should do it, it’s how we should do it and when we should do it.”
But he added that Congress would be reluctant to shell out much funding for the new military branch. “In reality, you’re not going to get a whole lot more money, so you’re going to have to create this force within current spending run rates, for the most part.”