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SecAF Questions Space Development Agency; Air Force Didn’t Want Boeing F-15X

Posted by Colin Clark on

US Air Force Space & Missile Systems Center (SMC)

AFA ORLANDO: “I have some concerns about what is the mission of this entity (the Space Development Agency). Why do we think it would be better than what we currently do, and what exactly would it be focused on.”

That is what Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson, whose service includes the Space and Missile Systems Center, told me when I asked her how the proposed Space Development Agency would work with SMC. Back in November, then- Deputy Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan said the Space Development Agency would be the first part of the Space Force or Space Corps — or whatever it is the Trump Administration is trying to create — to stand up.

While her language is careful,

Wilson is clearly addressing what virtually everyone who actually knows something about space acquisition has been saying since it was first proposed: We’ve already got SMC and the NRO. What the heck will a Space Development Agency do that’s different and why.


As we’ve said before, there are many difficult issues concerning the SDA that have not been publicly discussed:

  • Will NRO personnel and capabilities be included in the new agency?
  • Will the agency get a new headquarters, or will it just get new people and new authorities transferred to Space and Missile Systems Center (SMC) in Los Angeles?
  • What will the agency do that SMC doesn’t do, aside from build a few Navy and Army space capabilities?

So far, we have not heard definitive answers to any of those fundamental questions from the Office of Secretary of Defense, who are the ones pushing the concept, even though Shanahan issued a memo ordering its creation.

As our colleague Sandra Erwin at Space News reported:

The Space Development Agency will be under the “authority, direction and control” of Undersecretary of Defense for Research and Engineering Michael Griffin, Shanahan wrote in a memo.

Shanahan has directed Griffin to submit a plan by March 1 to stand up the Space Development Agency no later than March 29, according to a Jan. 19 memo titled “Implementation Guidance for the Establishment of the Space Development Agency.”

A few days ago, Sandra also broke the news that a senior DARPA official, Fred Kennedy, has been named to head SDA in — wait for it — a “draft memo.” I noted this in my question to Wilson and her reply was that there is “no signed memo” creating a Space Development Agency.

I understand the central issue for the Air Force, aside from how SDA will avoid duplicating what SMC does, is how would airmen, sailors, Marines and soldiers stay inextricably linked to the requirements and acquisition of space systems under an SDA.

Will the Air Force prevail or OSD?

One hint may be found in the Pentagon’s decision to buy Boeing’s F-15X in the forthcoming 2020 budget. The Air Force did not want to buy the proposed aircraft and Wilson disclosed in a reporter roundtable here that the F-15X was not in the Air Force budget submitted to OSD.

Many in the Air Force have agreed for years that the service should buy more F-35s because it would drive down production costs and provide the service with younger, much more capable aircraft.

How worried is the Air Force about F-35 sustainment costs? In her keynote speech this morning to a standing room only crowd here, Wilson offered this biting observation about the key sustainment tool used by the F-35 program, ALIS (pronounced like Alice):

“I can guarantee that no Air Force maintainer will ever name their daughter “Alice”.

Wilson characterized ALIS as “a proprietary system so frustrating to use, maintainers said they were wasting 10-15 hours a week fighting with it … and looking for ways to bypass it to try to make F-35s mission capable.” (You could almost hear the Lockheed folks’ teeth grinding…)

However, I asked Gen. Mike Holmes, head of Air Combat Command, if his best professional advice would be to buy a mix of fifth- and fourth-generation aircraft. (The nominal F-15X would, of course, be a fourth-gen plane.)

He made clear that buying more new planes is more important: “As the commander of ACC, I would like to see us buy more new aircraft — period. We need to address the average age of our fleet.” Holmes also said he did not think the F-15X would constitute a new fleet of planes, which could be an argument against it in budget terms. It’s “more expensive to operate an F-35 than a fourth generation aircraft over time,” Holmes noted.

The general very cleverly noted at the end of his remarks that Congress will make the final decision about whether to buy more F-35s or a mix of planes. That’s what’s called a hint. Why? Kay Grainger of Fort Worth is the top Republican on the House Appropriations Committee. The F-35 is largely built in her district. You can be sure she will oppose the mix. And as an appropriation’s cardinal her voice carries substantial weight on the Hill. So, OSD may win in the Pentagon but not on the Hill.

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