Air Force Secretary Wilson: ‘We are too hard to work with’

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Wilson: The Air Force still needs to build military-unique national security payloads.

WASHINGTON — Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson shared a conversation she had with one of her key advisers, Dr. John Stopher, whom she called her “space guru.”

The discussion was about the Air Force not being positioned to capture the technological advances pouring out of the private sector. “How do we structure ourselves so that innovation, not just in space, but more broadly can spin on to requirements?” Wilson said.

This is an issue that continues to haunt military leaders as private sector technology leaps forward at a dizzying pace while the military “requirements” process stays bogged down in the Defense Department bureaucracy.

Wilson is looking for ways to fix this but recognizes it is a hard problem.

“I don’t think we’re set up very well to allow that to rapidly happen,” she said, referring to the insertion of commercial technologies into the military. “I also know that a lot of small companies aren’t going to work with us. We are just too hard to work with.”

Wilson spoke Friday at a Washington Space Business Roundtable lunch event in Arlington, Va., titled “Girl Scouts and the U.S. Air Force: Developing Leaders for the Next Space Age.”

She gave a rousing “girl power” speech, highlighting the growing opportunities for women in science and technology fields, notably in space, an industry that she described as vibrant and exciting.

Wilson said she is enthusiastic about the future of women in the military and in the burgeoning “new space” industry. But she acknowledged the difficulties in bringing these two worlds together, as the military has unique needs that can’t be met by the commercial market.

She highlighted the remarkable achievements of startups like small-satellite maker Planet and low-cost launch provider Rocket Lab that are now revolutionizing the space sector. The Air Force, however, intends to continue to produce military-unique satellites and launch vehicles because of its sensitive national security requirements.

“The Air Force still has to have certain national security payloads,” Wilson said. “We are going to have to make sure they are resilient and defendable.”

For that reason, “we are still going to have to design and build” military-specific hardware, Wilson added. In some areas the Air Fore is more open to commercial products, though. “Part of having a resilient space network, especially in satellite communications, is to leverage what is going on in the commercial industry.”

As far as next-generation, cutting-edge technology, she said, “I think there will be more and more things that we ‘spin on’ from innovation in the commercial sector onto the national security sector.”

Wilson has been a proponent of creating industry consortiums to manage research-and-development projects from startups and small businesses that typically do not work with the U.S. government. A space prototyping consortium was set up in 2016 by the Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center in Los Angeles to leverage the commercial boom.

“That way they can ‘spin on’ technology but not have to deal with audits and contracts that are 600 pages long,” Wilson said. “We are trying to change how we work with industry.”

Air Force leaders have come under fire from congressional committees and even from within the U.S. military for not being forward-thinking in the acquisition of space systems.

One of the military’s most respected space experts, Air Force Gen. John Hyten, the commander of U.S. Strategic Command, warned recently that the United States can win in space today but “it’s not prepared to fight in the future.”

The Pentagon has to think differently, Hyten cautioned. “Somehow this country lost the ability to go fast. We take four years to study a problem before we do anything,” he said. “We have to change the way we do business. If we don’t do something differently, our advantage in five years may be gone.”

Hyten lamented that Air Force spends too much money and time developing large satellites that make “big, juicy” targets for the nation’s enemies. The solution, he said, is to spend less on “exquisite” costly systems that take years to develop and more on “resilient, more distributed capabilities” like small satellites.