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Top Air Force Officials: Space Now is a Warfighting Domain

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 17-May-2017
Updated: 18-May-2017 05:26 PM

New Secretary of the Air Force (SecAF) Heather Wilson and three top Air Force space leaders told Congress today that space no longer is just an enabler and force enhancer for U.S. military operations, it is a warfighting domain just like air, land, and sea.

Just 24 hours after being sworn in as the 24th SecAF, Wilson testified to the Strategic Forces subcommittee of the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC).  Joining her were Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein, Air Force Space Command commander Gen. John Raymond, and Air Force Space and Missiles Systems Center commander Lt. Gen. Samuel Greaves.   The topic was military space organization, programs and policy and the Government Accountability Office's (GAO's) Cristina Chaplain was another witness.  She especially addressed long standing DOD and Air Force organizational challenges to effectively develop and implement space programs.


Dr. Heather Wilson during swearing-in ceremony to become 24th Secretary of the Air Force, May 16, 2017.  U.S. Air Force photo/Wayne A. Clark

A major theme was that space no longer is a "benign" environment that supports the warfighter, but a warfighting domain itself.  In their joint written testimony, the Air Force officials said:  "Clearly, freedom to operate in space is not guaranteed.  In fact, space is now a warfighting domain, similar to the more familiar air, land, and maritime domains our men and women are fighting in today."

Asked whether he thought it was time to create a Space Corps analogous to the Marine Corps to better focus attention and resources on what is needed for space, Goldfein said no -- the timing is not right precisely because of this transition in thinking about space from a benign environment to a warfighting domain.  "Anything that leads to separating space instead of integrating it" into the overall military framework would "slow us down," though it might be considered in the future.

Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-NM) asked whether the United States should engage in an "international conversation about an international code of conduct."  Wilson replied that is a policy issue that reaches beyond the Air Force.  From her perspective, the Air Force's role is to be sure the United States can prevail "irrespective of consensus on international norms because there will be players who do not abide by those norms."

The Air Force leaders stressed the need to modernize space systems to maintain space superiority -- "a core USAF mission" -- to address gaps in space capabilities, strategy and  policy.  Although progress has been made on mission assurance and resiliency, work is needed on deterrence and 21st Century requirements.  Asked what countries pose the greatest threat to U.S. space assets, Goldfein not surprisingly identified Russia and China.  The open hearing did not delve deeply into those threats because details are classified.  Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), a member of the subcommittee and also chair of the Senate Commerce subcommittee that oversees NASA, said at a seminar organized by The Atlantic yesterday that the classified briefings on other countries' space weapons developments would "take your breath away." 

Wilson said the timing of the hearing was not ideal because the Trump Administration will not submit its complete FY2018 budget request until next week, so she could not talk about what it contains.  She said, however, that she expects space systems will receive a budget boost.

The organizational problems within DOD and the Air Force for space activities are well known.  Many reports have been written about them dating back at least to the 2001 Rumsfeld Commission report.  In October 2015, Deputy Secretary of Defense Robert Work created a new position of Principal DOD Space Adviser (PDSA) to be filled by the SecAF and reporting to the Secretary of Defense (SecDef).  SecAF Deborah Lee James was the first to fill it and there were rumors she also would be the last because it almost immediately came under criticism for being ineffective.

Wilson announced during the hearing, however, that she is the "principal adviser to the Secretary of Defense for space," so it appears SecDef James Mattis will keep the structure as it is for now. 

GAO issued a report in July 2016, prepared at congressional direction, saying that it was too early to judge the office's effectiveness.  However, it noted that there are 60 stakeholder organizations across DOD, the Executive Office of the President, the Intelligence Community, and civilian agencies involved in national security space activities, fragmenting leadership responsibilities. 

Chaplain indicated today that little has changed since that report was issued.  Among the consequences of fragmented responsibilities is ineffective program execution. For example, the satellite segment of a system may be completed well before the associated ground system, which "wastes capabilities."

Chaplin's written statement summarizes cost growth and schedule delays in a number of Air Force space programs, but the one that got the most attention at the hearing was the Operational Control Segment (OCX) for the new GPS III series of positioning, navigation and timing satellites.  OCX is nearly $2 billion over budget and 4 years late.  Asked if it was "too big to fail," Raymond and Greaves both said no, that the program was designed with milestone-driven "off ramps" in case there are further delays or the program is cancelled. 

Wilson added "we're not out of the woods" yet.


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