Trump Considers Firing Air Force Chief Over Space Force Pushback

The president appears to be tired of Pentagon officials slow rolling his orders.

Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson testifies before the Senate Appropriations Committee Subcommittee on Defense in Washington on May 17. (Air Force Photo by Staff Sgt. Rusty Frank)
Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson testifies before the Senate Appropriations Committee Subcommittee on Defense in Washington on May 17. (Air Force Photo by Staff Sgt. Rusty Frank)

U.S. President Donald Trump is peeved with Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson over her handling of his directive to stand up a separate Space Force in the U.S. military, and he’s considering ousting her after the midterm elections, three sources with knowledge of the matter told Foreign Policy.

Wilson, a former Republican congresswoman from New Mexico, recently angered Trump as well as Deputy Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan, Defense Secretary James Mattis’s second in command, with what is seen as a campaign to undermine the Space Force effort, the sources said.

The news comes just weeks after an explosive new book by journalist Bob Woodward alleged that members of Trump’s Cabinet, including Mattis himself, are quietly trying to undercut or slow roll the president’s orders. An anonymous op-ed published in the New York Times last month described similar resistance within the administration.

In the current case, the administration believes Wilson also “is trying to undermine this part of the president’s agenda from within,” said one source with knowledge of the internal debate.

“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 administration official told FP.

Trump is weighing firing Wilson after the midterm elections next month, but no final decision has been made, the sources said. However, the first source said the administration is already exploring options to replace her. One name that has been floated is Rep. Mike Rogers, an Alabama Republican, who has been a strong advocate of establishing a separate military entity to oversee space for years.

Even so, the White House on Thursday officially denied that it was considering such a move. “There is no discussion by the president to oust Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson—all reporting to the contrary is simply false,” said White House spokeswoman Lindsay Walters.

The fight over the Space Force is part of a broader struggle for resources among the U.S. military services, as congressionally mandated defense spending caps are set to return next year. As the Pentagon prepares its budget submission, the services are now jockeying for priority. In order to support the department’s pivot toward great power competition, the Navy has said it needs to increase its fleet size to 355 ships, while the Air Force has set a goal of 386 operational squadrons. The Army does not yet have a similar target.

The establishment of a separate Space Force as a sixth branch of the U.S. military is widely seen as a vote of no confidence in the Air Force’s stewardship of military space. In her role as Air Force secretary, Wilson serves as the principal Defense Department space advisor, one of a handful of senior leaders who report directly to Mattis on space matters. For the Air Force, which is currently responsible for much of the department’s assets and operations in space, standing up a separate service and a new civilian position—an assistant secretary of defense for space—is effectively a demotion.

Wilson drew the ire of the president soon after he announced the Space Force this summer when the White House rejected an initial draft plan crafted by the Air Force, according to the first source.

“The White House’s response was … this is not what we asked for, this is not what the president said he wants, throw this out,” the source said. “This is when people started to really sour on the Air Force and on her.”

Then, in a June 19 memo to airmen, Wilson cautioned that the process of standing up a Space Force will take some time and that immediate changes will not occur. The memo, which was distributed across the Air Force, made its way to the president’s desk, according to a second source with knowledge of the deliberations.

“This work directed by the president will be a thorough, deliberate, and inclusive process,” said the memo, which was signed by Wilson, Air Force Chief of Staff Dave Goldfein, and Chief Master Sgt. Kaleth Wright. “As such, we should not expect any immediate moves or changes.”

After Vice President Mike Pence formally announced the initiative during an Aug. 9 speech at the Pentagon, Wilson seemed to get on board—at least publicly. Wilson said on Sept. 5 during a conference in Washington that she was in “complete alignment” with Trump’s desire to stand up a Space Force, but she still urged a deliberate process.

“If we’re going to do this, let’s propose to do it right,” she said. “Let’s have this debate, support the president’s proposal and put it forward—and make sure that we don’t do this with half measures.”

Just a few weeks later, Wilson sent a memo to Shanahan that detailed a long list of requirements for the new Space Force. According to the Sept. 14 document, creating it would take an additional 13,000 people and $13 billion over five years—a figure some critics said was badly exaggerated.

Todd Harrison, a defense budget expert and the director of defense budget analysis at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, in a press conference called it “the broadest possible definition of how you could scope a Space Force that anyone could possibly conceive.” He dubbed the memo “an example of malicious compliance.”

“The methodology here is not very sophisticated and they’re giving no indication of where they got the number of people here and this all hinges on the numbers of people that we’re talking about,” Harrison said. “I don’t give a lot of credibility to this.”

The criticism only further inflamed the White House. “By the time [the administration] got this most recent memo with the cost estimate, they’d kind of already had it with her and the Air Force on this, and it just put them over the top,” the first source said.

Rep. Adam Smith, the Democratic ranking member on the powerful House Armed Services Committee, subsequently pushed back on Space Force on the grounds that it was too costly.

Shanahan struck a neutral tone during an Oct. 3 roundtable with a small group of reporters at the Pentagon, saying Wilson’s estimate was intended as a set of parameters.

“I greatly appreciate Secretary Wilson’s leadership, commitment, and vision,” Shanahan said later in a statement to FP on Oct. 4. “We are partnered on implementing the National Defense Strategy and winning. We’re focused on the future of the department. There is no groupthink in the Pentagon as we deal with complex real-world decisions as making large scale institutional change is difficult and demanding. I rely on Secretary Wilson’s advice and counsel.”

Privately, sources say Shanahan and Wilson frequently clash.

“Shanahan hates her guts, and Mattis is lukewarm at best,” said the second source, noting that Wilson often sends her second in command, Undersecretary Matthew Donovan, to meetings with Shanahan in her place.

It’s unclear whether Wilson will be forced out anytime soon. She still has a strong ally in Pence, with whom she has a prior relationship through their time in Congress. And forcing out one of its few female military leaders would likely reflect badly on the administration.

A fourth source familiar with the deliberations noted that Wilson frequently travels with Pence and that she has been an “asset to the team.”

But other sources speculate that she may have no choice but to leave after the midterm elections.

“It would be a pretty serious decision, not one that should be taken lightly,” said the second source. But “she’s getting into hot water right now, with no top cover.”

The Air Force declined to comment for this article.

Update, Oct. 5, 2018: This article was updated with a statement from White House spokeswoman Lindsay Walters, as well as a quote from an administration source.

Lara Seligman is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @laraseligman

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