Former Seattleite and Boeing Vice President Pat Shanahan, now deputy secretary of defense, on Thursday expressed enthusiasm for an idea pushed by President Donald Trump against initial reluctance from some Pentagon leaders: the creation of a Space Force, an independent military service to join the Air Force, Army, Marines, Navy and Coast Guard.
Shanahan said he envisages this force as relatively small, consisting of around 20,000 people.
And intent on demonstrating the relevance of defense spending to the Pacific Northwest, he talked about how the Pentagon intends to leverage the technologies of local giants Amazon and Microsoft and of space-rocket company Blue Origin.
Shanahan avoided or skirted controversial national defense topics in a virtual roundtable news conference with reporters at several regional papers. Instead, his focus was on innovative technology to modernize the military.
Currently various military systems such as Army communications or missile defense depend upon separate space-based networks that deliver data to ground stations. The idea of the Space Force is to draw all these together under one command.
It’s needed, Shanahan said, because space, previously a conflict-free “sanctuary” has become a battleground where the ability to destroy satellites is a key capability in warfare.
“Other countries have been developing systems that put at risk space systems that we designed, that allow me to read The Seattle Times on my smartphone or to operate tractors that farm the fields in the Midwest,” Shanahan said. “We need to protect those.”
Answering critics who’ve suggested the proposed Space Force will only create a new, costly bureaucracy, Shanahan said the new force will be small compared to the other military branches. Questions of where the headquarters will be, what uniforms they will wear and whether a separate space academy must be formed are all relatively minor, he said.
The focus will be placing military hardware in space and in ground stations. “It’s not as people-concentrated as the the Navy or the Army or even the Marines. They’re order of magnitudes bigger,” he said.
Shanahan also said private companies will have a large role in the military’s modernization. In the past, he said, the typical trajectory for innovative technology was that the military developed it and the commercial world adopted it. For example, the military ARPANet evolved into the internet.
“Now, it’s the reverse,” Shanahan said. SpaceX and Blue Origin have revolutionized space rockets, slashing the cost of launching satellites. NASA and the military can now leverage those investments.
“Commercial has developed the technology, now we’ll tailor it to our military applications,” he said.
Likewise, he said, the Pentagon is now trying to apply the cloud-computing power developed by Amazon and Microsoft to its military needs.
“Tremendous digital modernization needs to take place, and these big firms will play a significant role,” Shanahan said. “The amount of computing that the cloud affords generates tremendous capacity to do things like artificial intelligence.”
He said applications include back-office applications to help run the Defense Department, which is the largest employer in the U.S., more than 3 million people strong. But software and AI can also help smooth the logistics of managing, for example, the military’s more than 4,000 aircraft or its forward deployment of fuel and munitions.
And he said commanders can use AI to pull together multiple arrays of information to aid battlefield decision-making.
Before the news conference, Shanahan’s aides said he wouldn’t answer questions about the deployment of U.S. troops to the border, deferring to the Department of Homeland Security on that topic.
And when questioned about some other controversial subjects of the day, Shanahan declined “to dive into detailed policy questions.”
One such hot topic in Congress is the continued sale of U.S. arms to Saudi Arabia to prosecute its war in Yemen, despite the savagery of that conflict, the mounting humanitarian crisis there and the recent slaying of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate.
Shanahan said he wanted to avoid specifics on Saudi Arabia because Defense Secretary Jim Mattis is currently pressing for a ceasefire in Yemen.
Yet he defended the arms sales in principle by saying that arming and supporting partners in the Middle East is a strategy to avoid direct U.S. involvement. “The U.S. doesn’t want to be a policeman to the world,” he said.
On China policy too, Shanahan limited his response.
A Pentagon report provided for Thursday’s briefing identified China as the major military challenger to the U.S. Yet Shanahan would not be drawn on how a war with China, over say control of the South China Sea, could even be contemplated in the nuclear age.
He insisted that because of Chinese intellectual property and technology theft, cyberattacks and the build-up of the Chinese military, “the U.S. must find a way to maintain its technological and military advantage.”
“If you don’t have credible deterrence, then you don’t give your diplomats the leverage that it takes to resolve things,” he said.
Sixteen months into the job, and with his boss, Mattis, widely expected to leave the administration by year-end, Shanahan said he’s had “a great experience” and appeared relaxed in his role implementing Trump’s military decisions.
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