AFA ORLANDO: It is only “a matter of years” before the US fights “from space,” the Air Force’s top uniformed leader said here. With that stark prediction, Chief of Staff David Goldfein went on to press the famously plane-focused service “to embrace space superiority with the same passion and sense of ownership as we apply to air superiority today.”
Senior Air Force leaders have been saying for several years that space is central to the Air Force and must be taken seriously. But that rhetoric has ramped up considerably since Rep. Mike Rogers of the House strategic forces subcommittee raised the specter of a separate Space Corps, threatening the service’s dominance of the Pentagon’s space budget and personnel.
What has that driven the head of the Air Force to do here at the Air Force Association’s winter conference? Say things like this: “We are the service that must lead joint war fighting in this new contested domain. This is what the nation demands.”
Well, the nation may demand we fight effectively in and from space, but Congress can decide it doesn’t have to be the Air Force that does it. I found Goldfein’s comments especially intriguing because I pressed him in my interview at AFA to describe what the service would do to address Congress’ concerns and he offered few specifics.
The service is offering the appearance of acting on space issues. Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson said in her Thursday keynote here that she’s considering a reorganization of the legendarily stovepiped Space and Missile Systems Center, the folks who manage development and procurement of Air Force space systems. “We have to figure out how do we move more quickly, how do we spin on from commercial space?” she said.
But SMC has endured more than a decade of criticism since the period when space acquisition was, inarguably, broken. (Sorry, Gen. Lance Lord. It was broken when you said it wasn’t, and it’s a bit wobbly again.) Space acquisition improved considerably in execution, but there weren’t many new programs started (at least not that we knew about). Now we face a resurgence of space weapon acquisition, with new missile launch detection satellites likely, the still nascent move from buying rockets to buying launch services, increased numbers of satellites that appear designed for space situational awareness, and, of course, the whole move to smaller satellites.
Will these Air Force declarations be enough to fend off an increasingly likely move by Congress to fundamentally change who does what in space for the military? They’ve already told the Deputy Defense Secretary to recommend who should oversee space acquisition, embodied in Major Force Program (MFP) 12. The NDAA Conference Report bars both the Air Force Secretary and the Pentagon’s head of intelligence, the undersecretary of defense for intelligence, from that role.
In addition to all that change, the NDAA charges a Federally Funded Research and Development Corporation (FFRDC) “affiliated with the Air Force” with analyzing the benefits and drawbacks of creating the Space Corps. So expect Congress to watch like a hawk every utterance and action by Wilson, Goldfein and Gen. Jay Raymond — head of Air Force Space Command and now the four-star Joint Force Space Component Commander — as they shape the 2019 NDAA.