The Space Force’s Real Mission: Wasting Taxpayer Dollars
Back in 2018, when the Space Force was being formed, I warned that the new service would likely seek exemptions from existing regulations governing acquisition, arguing that looser rules would be necessary to keep up with technological development. I hate to say that my warning was pretty prescient.
The newly created United States Space Force wasted little time in attempting to skirt the rules governing how it spends taxpayer money. The service submitted a report last week to Congress that requested the creation of an “Alternative Acquisition System for the U.S. Space Force,” justifying the proposal with lots of jargon: “The U.S. must maintain a strategic advantage in space through both a space-focused military service and a space-tailored acquisition system that rapidly leverages these new industry dynamics.” These policies will hinder Congress’s ability to conduct oversight and result in more money wasted on dubious systems.
In one of the proposed changes, Space Force leaders want to create budget lines for broad mission categories rather than allocated funding for specific programs. In practice, this would mean that instead of asking Congress for funding for a single communications satellite program, as is the current practice for virtually all acquisitions, the Space Force would have a block of money allocated for all communications programs. So Space Force bureaucrats would be able to shift money from one program to another without Congress’s approval.
The real reason the Space Force was created was to make it easier for contractors to sell things to the government. This acquisition program supports that effort.
We’ve seen this before—it is precisely the same reason that the United States Air Force gained its service independence from the Army in 1947. The airmen of that day and their allies in the aviation industry hated having to gain the approval of the non-flyer Army leaders before they could undertake pet projects. Having a separate service meant they had control over their own budget.
Back then, airmen did at least believe their new service could win wars independent of the existing military. Although their theories had already been proven false through massive experimentation during World War II, the Air Force’s quest for service independence was underpinned by a warfighting rationale. The Space Force doesn’t even offer that much.
One of the most vocal proponents for the new service is Representative Mike Rogers. In a speech to the 2017 Space Symposium, he spoke extensively about the low priority the other services placed on space-related programs when drawing up their budgets as the principal reason for creating a new service. Representative Jim Cooper also worked hard on the Space Force’s behalf, but is now somehow surprised by the site selection process for its headquarters. “The vision that Rep. Mike Rogers and I had for the Space Corps was a lean and agile organization that repurposed Air Force funds to protect U.S. assets in space,” he said, “not create another bureaucracy with an edifice complex.” For the record, I warned that this would happen as well.
In attempting to avoid the burdensome major defense acquisition program process, the Space Force is hardly unique. Many of the high-profile acquisition programs underway now, including the B-21 bomber, the Army’s latest tank upgrade, and the F-35 modernization program, are all being done through offices or schemes outside of the formal process to avoid paperwork and testing requirements. But the Space Force’s reasoning isn’t necessarily sound. For example, the new service wants to eliminate several of the decision review points regarding development and production, claiming they are unnecessary for space systems because they are purchased in smaller quantities. While it is true that satellites and other space systems are not purchased in numbers like F-35s, we still buy more of them than we do aircraft carriers, which must go through the full review process.
This is also not the first time an agency has sought a unique acquisition process. Congress created the Missile Defense Agency in 2002 to combine a series of programs into an integrated ballistic missile defense system. The agency received special rules governing the way it purchases equipment and conducts testing, but has little to show for it. Since its founding 18 years ago, the agency has received approximately $174 billion and has produced only limited success. Just this year, after spending $1.3 billion, it pulled the plug on the Redesigned Kill Vehicle Program when it realized the technological challenges were too great to overcome. In all, more than $11 billion worth of Missile Defense Agency programs have come to nothing, and the United States still lacks the means to defend against incoming enemy missiles.
The last thing the American people need is another bureaucracy in Washington draining our tax dollars. There are legitimate military concerns in space and they must be properly addressed. But the key thing to remember is that, much like aviation, space operations by themselves are not decisive in war. It is how they impact operations at sea and on the ground that really matter. To that point, numerous critics now believe Space Force leaders will use their new proposed authorities to buy equipment that is incompatible with the gear used by the other services.
The bureaucratic barriers now established between the Space Force and the actual decisive arms on the ground and at sea will make it more difficult for them to receive the support they need.
Congress should not compound their already massive mistake by giving the Space Force special acquisition authorities. Doing so will accomplish little more than wasting taxpayer money, while simultaneously making it difficult for Congress to oversee its activities and operations. So far our forecasting on the Space Force has demonstrated levels of accuracy rarely seen in our unpredictable pandemic world. Hopefully Congress will heed this warning.
Dan Grazier is the Jack Shanahan Military Fellow at the Project on Government Oversight. He is a former Marine Corps captain who served tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan during the war on terror. His various assignments in uniform included tours with 2nd Tank Battalion in Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, and 1st Tank Battalion in Twentynine Palms, California.