An eye-poppingly high price tag sank President Trump’s plans for a military parade through the streets of Washington.
Now, some analysts say opponents are using the same creative budgeting to scuttle — or at least delay — the creation of a U.S. Space Force. Pentagon officials are said to be artificially inflating the cost in the hopes of turning public opinion against the idea.
The Air Force’s estimate that it will cost at least $13 billion over five years to stand up the Space Force has been met with skepticism among some retired Defense Department officials and space policy specialists, who believe Mr. Trump’s proposed new military branch could be established for much less. Ironically, the debate over dollars comes at a time when, after years of pleading from Defense Department officials and many lawmakers on Capitol Hill for more military spending, Mr. Trump just last week signed a record-level $716 billion budget for the Pentagon.
Despite that unprecedented funding level, the idea of funneling $13 billion to a service that skeptics believe is wholly unnecessary — and which hasn’t been given a clear, concise, easily understandable mission statement — could ground the Space Force on the launch pad.
That, analysts say, is exactly the point of the cost estimates.
“This is the broadest possible definition of how you could scope a Space Force that anyone could possibly conceive,” Todd Harrison, director of defense budget analysis at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, recently told Defense One. “This cost estimate — it just really looks like they’re trying to come out with a high-ball estimate to shift the debate into how expensive this is going to be.”
The money argument is particularly potent with a president who has prided himself on taking a skeptical eye to some security spending — including the cost of the F-35 fighter jet, the expenses for moving the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and the expense of holding annual military exercises with South Korea.
Former Pentagon officials say the sky-high cost estimate is further proof of the institutional resistance to a Space Force inside the Defense Department. Unable to simply refuse Mr. Trump’s direct order for a sixth branch of the armed forces, military officials instead could try to make the idea less appealing by highlighting the cost and complexity of getting it off the ground.
It will be up to the president and Defense Secretary James Mattis, analysts say, to counter those efforts.
“It has to come from the political leadership in the White House and the Pentagon because there is no existing Pentagon organization that wants this to happen,” said Douglas Loverro, former deputy assistant secretary of defense for space policy. “The president is going to have to put his own person in charge of it to get it done.”
The idea of using sticker shock to undercut one of Mr. Trump’s controversial proposals was used to great success over the summer. The president’s plan for a military parade in Washington was initially estimated to cost somewhere from $10 million to $30 million and had tentatively been scheduled for Veterans Day.
By mid-August, however, Pentagon officials began whispering that they would need to spend about $50 million on military vehicles, aircraft and equipment for the parade. Another $42 million, they said, would need to be divided among federal agencies and departments handling security for the event, bringing the overall cost to a whopping $92 million.
In on-the-record comments, the Defense Department said that figure wasn’t final, but once it had leaked into the public discussion, the idea quickly died. Mr. Trump pulled the plug on the parade shortly after the $92 million figure was leaked.
The president at the time blamed District of Columbia city leaders, who would have played key roles in organizing the event.
“The local politicians who run Washington, D.C. (poorly) know a windfall when they see it,” Mr. Trump tweeted in August. “When asked to give us a price for holding a great celebratory military parade, they wanted a number so ridiculously high that I cancelled it. Never let someone hold you up!”
Although the notion of an American military parade raised eyebrows, it wouldn’t have had much of a lasting impact on the military. A Space Force, however, represents a fundamental change in the core structure of the Defense Department, and some officials say that level of overhaul comes with a high price tag.
In its September memo outlining the $13 billion in costs, Air Force officials proposed spending nearly $600 million for additional personnel, $1 billion to build a combatant command headquarters, $7.2 billion for “Space Force elements” and a host of other expenses.
Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson said setting up an entirely new branch of the military — something that hasn’t been done since the Air Force was separated from the Army in 1947 — is a complex and expensive proposition.
“The other important thing here is that the costs here are additive costs,” she said in an interview with Defense News just after the $13 billion figure became public. “They are not just the movement of other capabilities and consolidate them. To stand up a department that’s responsible for recruiting and training and planning and programming and budgeting and all of the leadership requirements that a department has, it’s a major undertaking. It’s a bold idea.”
But analysts say the Space Force, at least in its first few years, could be established with a far more modest budget.
They argue that space-related parts of existing services, such as the Air Force Space Command, could stay in their current facilities but simply work under the organizational umbrella of the Space Force. Some analysts question whether it’s necessary to follow the Air Force’s blueprint and move large, expensive departments such as the National Reconnaissance Office into the Space Force. They also say the new branch could use other services’ recruiting facilities.
“You can do this with almost no investment of dollars if you choose to and let it evolve,” Mr. Loverro said.
More broadly, some retired military officials argue that critics of the idea inside the Pentagon are choosing to focus on how difficult and expensive a Space Force could be rather than looking for ways to stand it up cheaply and efficiently.
“The big concern whenever you have a military reorganization is budget and people and authority and power. And so there’s always those traditionalists that for various reasons are inclined to see the glass half-empty. They’re looking at what’s wrong,” said Richard Hallion, a leading Air Force historian and former senior adviser for air and space at the Pentagon.
On Capitol Hill, Space Force supporters say it’s too soon to focus on dollars. How much it will cost, they say, will be hashed out over the next 12 months leading into next year’s defense spending package.
“I’m not going to speculate about funding before the budget has even been submitted,” Rep. Mike Rogers, Alabama Republican and vocal Space Force proponent, told The Washington Times. “I look forward to continuing to work with Deputy Secretary of Defense Shanahan as we continue to implement Space Force.”