In September of this year, Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson provided the federal government, and the press, with a report outlining the Air Force’s cost projection for standing up a new branch of the U.S. Armed Forces dedicated specifically to space and orbital defense. According to the report, this new Trump directive would cost the taxpayers something in the realm of $13 billion — a figure that was then run in headlines across the globe to show the massive scope of the president’s controversial decision.
But within days, defense experts outside of the Air Force began questioning the validity of the report Wilson touted in multiple interviews and media appearances. In fact, some of the numbers seemed downright fishy.
“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, director of the defense budget analysis arm of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “I don’t give this a lot of credibility.”
Among the glaring issues in Heather Wilson’s report were significantly exaggerated numbers regarding the number of troops the Space Force would need, large construction projects that aren’t in keeping with any current plans, and perhaps most notably, the assumption that every service member within the Space Force will receive an average salary of $175,000 per year. That figure, of course, represents a massive increase over the force-wide average of $30-60,000 per year.
It seemed clear to many that Wilson, who has been an outspoken opponent of divesting space responsibilities from her branch, was playing a bit of dirty politics as a part of a broader effort to retain control of space and its associated share of the budgetary pie. Those rumors were exacerbated a week later when Wilson submitted her branch’s new budget request, which called for an increase of $18 billion to the Air Force per year for an expansion that included space-related assets. If Wilson could both turn political favor against the new branch and sufficiently drag her feet, it’s possible that she could see a change in policy two years from now… if Trump were to lose reelection.
Now, a new report produced at the Pentagon seems to substantiate claims that the Air Force projections were inappropriately exaggerated. According to this new report, the Space Force would cost a bit more than a third of what Wilson projected. According to Deputy Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan, the Pentagon’s Space Force projections ring in at around $5 billion, and possibly even lower. For certain, according to Shanahan, we’re talking “single digit, not a double-digit” billions of dollars.
This news comes weeks after rumors swirled that President Trump was considering replacing Wilson at the helm of the Air Force. The rumors suggested Trump was displeased with the way she was pushing back against the establishment of the new branch, but ultimately it seemed Trump chose not to make any changes. With this new report making its way to the White House, however, Wilson may be stuck answering some tough questions.
In that regard, Wilson has already gone on the offensive, doubling down on her branch’s projections to the press over the weekend.
Our cost estimate that we gave to a lot of people in the Pentagon in September was the cost of a fully-fledged, stand-alone department and also a unified combatant command,” she said at the Defense One Summit.
“Whatever is put forward needs to implement the president’s proposal. What we put forward was cost estimates to implement a stand-alone department. The president is going to be making some decisions to put forward a proposal in concert with his fiscal year 2020 budget proposal that will go to the Congress in February. The costs will be really based on what are the elements in the model in that proposal.”