Setting up a space force might be cheaper than first expected, estimate says

A lot of numbers are being thrown out about what it would cost to potentially set up a completely new military service focused on space. But, in the last week, the estimates seem to be honing in on a target and it’s coming out to be less than originally expected.

A new report by Todd Harrison, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies,  pegs the cost of creating a new space force at between $300 million and $550 million in the first year.

That’s in line with what Deputy Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan said last week. Shanahan said the Defense Department’s updated numbers for the space force over the next five years could be less than $5 billion.

Harrison’s five-year estimate is between $1.5 billion and $2.7 billion, mostly coming from headquarters staff costs.

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Harrison,  who has been a vocal advocate of establishing this new military service for space, fully admitted his estimate does not take into account the cost of moving space operations from the intelligence agencies, because their budgets are classified. That could add some extra expense.

Still, both his and DoD’s budget guesses are vastly different — and much less — than the $13 billion the Air Force projected a space force would cost over five years.

It’s also important to note that Harrison’s estimate does not take into account the creation of a U.S. Space Command or a Space Development Agency, because they are separate policy decisions. Those two entities could come with their own larger price tags.

As for how much the space force might cost taxpayers per year to operate, Harrison said the budget would likely be similar to that of the U.S. Coast Guard, at about $11.3 billion to $21.5 billion.

A vast majority of that budget would come from the other military services’ current spending, however.

“More than 96 percent of the budget is transferred from other parts of DoD and would not add to the top-line defense budget,” the report said. The new funding for the space force is “less than one tenth of a percent of the total national defense budget.”

Workforce shift

Harrison’s estimates are based on three different options.

The first is a “space corps,” an entity that would be part of the Department of the Air Force, much as the Marine Corps is a service within the Department of the Navy. That option would transfer about 12,100 active duty service members and 1,600 guard and reserve to the space corps. About 12,000 civilians from the Air Force would move to the space corps and then another 1,700 personnel would be hired. The total workforce would be about 27,300 and would constitute the low end of the budget spectrum.

A moderate option is what Harrison calls “space force-lite.” This would be its own entity and take all of the Air Force’s space assets, plus the Army 1st Space Brigade, the Navy Program Executive Office for Space Systems and the Navy Satellite Operations Center.

The lite option would transfer about 16,700 active duty service members and 1,900 guard and reserve personnel. About 14,600 civilian personnel from the Air Force, Army and Navy would move to the space force and an additional 2,600 would be added. This option gives the space force a total workforce of about 35,800 and would cost roughly $400 million.

The final option, which Harrison dubbed “space force-heavy,” is the high end of the budget estimate spectrum. That option would take all of the space force-lite assets, plus the Army’s 100th Missile Defense Brigade and part of the Missile Defense Agency.

The option would transfer 18,300 active duty troops and 2,800 guard and reserve members. Additionally, 24,300 civilians would be transferred from the other services and defense agencies and another 3,100 staff would be added. The total workforce would be 48,500.

The logistics of moving all people is still up in the air for DoD.

“If you were going to transfer all these people into a space force, what does that process look like and what does it take?” Shanahan asked. “It takes quite a bit of time to change from on department to another. That’s a process that could last up to over a year just to move people. We haven’t worked to the level of this process like how does it affect the individual. We are really looking at scale and timing because that gets at how much this would cost.”

Shanahan said DoD will have to take into account if any structures will need to be built and other transactional costs of moving people.

Despite the lower budget numbers, Harrison said creating a space force will allow DoD to protect money set aside purely for space.

“In this past budget cycle when the overall funding came down, we saw space funding declining as well,” Harrison said. “Then, when the budget started growing, space hasn’t grown quite as much in the Air Force like aviation programs have. If you have a separate service for space it’s going to be able to grow and decline just like the other overall services and not be disadvantaged. In that sense, it probably ends up with more funding in the future.”

Of course, there’s always the option that a space force might not happen. The force needs congressional approval and Harrison said there is only a 50 percent chance it makes it through Congress next year.

“A lot of it is going to depend on what specific legislative proposal the administration puts forward in February,” Harrison said. “How big of a scope do they envision? How disruptive is it going to be perceived as being? I think another political factor is, is this seen as being President Trump’s space force or is this something that the military is getting on board with. I think that is going to make a big difference, especially in the minds of a lot of Democrats on the House side.”

Harrison said the Pentagon is still split internally on the space force.

“I think leadership is still very much divided on how to proceed on what options they favor. There’s a camp within the Pentagon that still likes this U.S. Special Operations Command model,” Harrison said, referring to a space entity that would be more of a combatant command with space operators in each service, rather than a military branch of its own.

“There’s another camp that likes the Missile Defense Agency model, which would basically be a Space Development Agency on steroids and then you’ve got the president demanding a separate department and service,” he said. “I think there’s a lot of different competing camps, but at the end of the day it’s the president’s proposal, so that’s what will win out.”