It’s been no secret that President Trump’s directive to establish a new branch of the American armed forces tasked specifically with space defense has had its critics within the Defense Department. While there seems to be no debate regarding the need for orbital defense, the conflict has primarily been focused on how to go about ensuring the security of America’s orbital assets without breaking the bank.
Those in favor of keeping space defense within the Air Force (which has notably included Defense Secretary James Mattis in the past, as well as Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson) contend that establishing a new independent branch would cost much more than simply allocating more funds to the Air Force to do the same job. Critics of the Air Force Space Defense initiative, however, point out that in recent decades the branch has repeatedly re-allocated funding meant for space to other things, particularly ordnance and upkeep for ongoing combat operations tied to the long-standing Global War on Terror.
Now, rumors are swirling that President Trump is considering ousting the Air Force Secretary, Heather Wilson, as a result of her pushback against the establishment of a Space Force. Thus far, no White House officials have corroborated these rumors on the record, but quotes sourced from an “unnamed insider” seem to suggest that it’s at least a possibility.
“Some senior officials know how to disagree with [the president] without being disagreeable to him. Heather Wilson hasn’t managed to do that. Her opposition to the Space Force has grated on him and I think he permanently sees her as troublesome and ineffective now,” an anonymous official from within the Trump administration reportedly told reporters.
To some, this move may seem like a bit of petty politics, with the Air Force apparently assisting in the effort to assess the best route to establishing a new branch despite a bit of public foot-dragging. However, there is evidence to suggest that it’s been Wilson, rather than Trump, that’s been using dirty-boxing tactics to garner political support in the space force debate.
In September, the Air Force released a report claiming to outline the cost projections of standing up the Space Force over the coming five years. All told, they estimated that the new branch would run the taxpayers about $13 billion, or the same approximate cost as the U.S. Navy’s USS Gerald R. Ford aircraft carrier. That $13 billion figure was then touted by Wilson in multiple statements and picked up by international news outlets — many of which used the figure to argue that the new branch is an ill-advised endeavor championed by a president that doesn’t understand the nuts and bolts of such an initiative.
Once budget experts got their hands on the Air Force’s report, however, many began to question the methodologies employed in coming up with that oft-touted $13 billion figure.
“I don’t think there’s a lot to this process. The methodology is not very sophisticated. They’re giving no indication of where they got the numbers from,” said Todd Harrison, the head of the budget analysis arm of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “I don’t give this a lot of credibility.”
Among the glaring issues with the Air Force report were the addition of some 13,000 more troops, for which there is no evidence of need, and the assumption that the average salary for all military personnel assigned to the Space Force would be $175,000 per year — some $110,000 per year higher than the highest military wide-averages used by other budgetary projections. High dollar construction endeavors with no details provided to account for another large chunk of the Air Force estimate. All this totaling to a cost that was exaggerated by as much as $1.5 billion per year over the five years. That means Heather Wilson and the Air Force more than doubled the appropriate projected costs of a Space Force before releasing those figures to the media.
Just days later, Heather Wilson launched another press campaign, this time calling on the government to provide a huge influx of funding to the branch for the establishment of 74 new squadrons and 40,000 more troops to operate them. This request totaled to a requested budget increase of $18 billion per year, and notably included plans to stand up and man 7 new squadrons devoted specifically to space defense.
Rumors regarding the possibility that Trump might fire Secretary Wilson over what would seem to be an underhanded effort to discredit the president’s directive to establish a Space Force are, at this point, nothing more than rumors. However, they’re bolstered by other long-standing rumors that Wilson has few friends within the Pentagon, or stories of Deputy Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan regularly clashing with Wilson.
If rumors of termination do turn out to be true, the evidence would seem to suggest that such a termination may be justified.