Air Force lays out its case for keeping space operations

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WASHINGTON – Separating space operations from the Air Force would hamper the service’s efforts to address threats in orbit, Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein said May 17.

Testifying before the Senate Armed Services strategic forces subcommittee, Goldfein argued that setting up a separate “Space Corps” within the Air Force — similar to the Marine Corps within the Navy — would only cause confusion.

“I don’t support it at this time,” Goldfein told the senators. “Right now, as we make this transition from a benign to a warfighting environment…any move that actually ends up separating space as opposed to integrating space, I would argue is a move in the wrong direction.”

The Air Force has been facing questions on reorganizing military space operations from lawmakers, many of whom are weighing whether to eventually create a separate space force.

But Goldfein argued that it’s not the time to try to set up a new service.

“Right now, to get focused on a large organizational change would actually slow us down,” he said. “Whether there’s a time in our future where we want to take a look at this again, I would say that we keep that dialog open, but right now I think it would actually move us backwards.”

It’s a topic that will likely spring up again May 19, when Gen. Jay Raymond, head of Air Force Space Command, testifies before the House Armed Services Strategic Forces Subcommittee, chaired by Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Ala.), one of the leading advocates for creating a special force.

The Senate hearing came as the Government Accountability Office, the congressional watchdog office, released a report detailing continuing concerns with of the Defense Department’s manages the acquisition of military space systems such as satellites.

“GAO has reported over the years that DoD’s culture has generally been resistant to changes in space acquisition approaches and that fragmented responsibilities have made it difficult to coordinate and deliver interdependent systems,” the report said.

Cristina Chaplain, director of acquisition and sourcing management at the GAO, told the committee that past attempts to fix space acquisitions haven’t been very successful.

“We didn’t make a particular recommendation because we think how it affects operations needs to be taken into account,” she said. “But I will say that the solutions tried to date that don’t separate space as people think it should be separated haven’t worked very well.”

Part of the reason it doesn’t work is that budgets for space systems often get sacrificed in favor of other military programs, Chaplain said.

“People in these prior studies and today believe that there needs to be some kind of segregation to protect the space budget, to leverage expertise from the workforce, and it’s to really clearly designate who’s in charge,” she said. “So if it’s not going to that, it needs to be some kind of solution that does those things.”

Air Force leadership doesn’t want to lose responsibility for space, and is creating a new three-star position – known as the A-11 – on the Air Staff that will oversee military space matters.

Goldfein and Chaplain both agreed, however, that streamlined acquisition is needed. The general said that he wants to see a single person be the ultimate authority in overseeing and executing space acquisitions and contracts, much in the way that contracting is handled now for more traditional purchases like aircraft.

Chaplain cautioned that in addition to streamlining authority, the Air Force — or Congress — is going to need to take a hard look at the way the contracts themselves are being executed.

“We’re hearing issues about systems engineering, contractor performance, lots of management and oversight issues that really seem to persist,” she said.

The GAO reported estimated that some of the service’s leading satellite programs are ballooning in cost from their original estimates.

The Advanced Extremely High Frequency communications satellite constellation was originally projected at $6.9 billion, but is now closer to $15 billion, the report said. And the Air Force’s missile-warning constellation, the Space Based Infrared System, has grown from $5 billion to more than $19 billion.

The subcommittee session was also the first hearing for newly minted Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson since her confirmation May 8.

Wilson said that she has been impressed at the changes the Air Force has made to better address threats in space, but noted that there’s still a lot of work to be done.

“There’s been a lot going on in the last 18 to 24 months to change the culture in the Air Force, to develop better training methods, develop new techniques for dominating in space, and the assumption that space will be a contested domain,” Wilson said, adding that it was a subject she was looking forward to getting involved with.