As lawmakers wrangle over the next step in an ongoing debate over creating a so-called Space Corps, top Air Force officials told a Senate panel on Tuesday that China’s innovations in space are among their top worries.
The exchange, part of a congressional hearing with Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson and Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein, highlights the difficulties ahead for lawmakers to reach a consensus on tackling rising threats in space and whether standing up a new command is the answer.
The House’s Space Corps proposal was met last year with fervent opposition from the Pentagon and their Senate colleagues, but that might have lifted some since President Donald Trump floated a similar idea last month.
“We are open to discussing ideas that people have in this realm,” Wilson said in response to a question about the Space Corps from Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H. “I think the most important thing is not the organization, but what we actually do and that is to defend ourselves … and make clear to any adversary that if they take us on in space, we will prevail.”
The comments were part of a wide-ranging Senate Armed Services Committee hearing that hosted the Air Force officials to talk about budget priorities for 2019. The hearing also touched on aviation mishaps, an ongoing audit and positive reports from transgender servicemembers, and could play into the development of the 2019 National Defense Authorization Act, which directs policy and spending plans for the Defense Department.
The discussion for a new space command has picked up in related hearings on Capitol Hill following Trump’s comments lauding the effort.
Several times during Tuesday’s hearing the discussion turned to the Space Corps and U.S. defense in space, including an exchange with Sen. Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, in which she asked officials their top concerns, especially in the Pacific region.
“What concerns me the most is the innovation of China and their rapid growth in their military capabilities,” Wilson said.
Goldfein took the comments a step further, saying China’s space innovation was a top worry.
“Some of the work they are doing in space, it’s very aggressive and we built our space architecture in an era where space was a rather benign domain,” he said. However, “we are very focused in taking some bold moves in this budget to increase our ability to defend what we have in space.” Goldfein added while Russia is also investing in the space domain, they don’t have the same economic base as China that would allow gains as quickly.
Wilson emphasized that the 2019 budget proposal includes significant funding and prioritization efforts to address those concerns.
“We are building a more lethal and more agile force and I think this fiscal year (2019) budget has a significant commitment to being able to defend ourselves at orbit,” she said.
But a new National Space Strategy is also needed, since the last one was published in 2011, said Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa.
“The threats have exponentially increased since then,” she said.
Wilson and Goldfein said a strategic alliance from the president to the vice president to the military has fueled greater focus on the effort. For example, the White House re-launched a National Space Council this past year, with Vice President Mike Pence acting as chairman, they said.
The council released a preview of an upcoming new National Space Strategy last month.
“From the top leadership of the nation through those of us entrusted with the mission of space superiority, we have this strategic alignment right now,” Goldfein said. “And the space strategy that National Security Council is working its way through, it’s going to be very important.”
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