Air Force to create three-star ‘vice commander’ post to manage space activities

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A new “vice commander of Air Force Space Command" would be based in the Washington, D.C. area — not in Colorado Springs.

WASHINGTON — Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson has notified the congressional armed services committees of a new plan to create a three-star position that would directly support U.S. Space Command.

The post would be “vice commander of Air Force Space Command,” and would be based in the Washington — not in Colorado Springs, Colorado, where Air Force Space Command is headquartered.

This is part of a broader effort by the Air Force to comply with a legislative mandate to increase focus on space and make it a higher priority on the Air Force’s agenda.

“Recently, the Secretary of the Air Force notified the defense congressional committees of Air Force actions to implement the provisions of H.R. 2810, Section 1601 of the 2018 National Defense Authorization Act,” Air Force spokesman Maj. William Russell told SpaceNews in a statement.

He said Air Force will establish a three-star vice commander of Air Force Space Command to be located in the national capital region. That office would “assist the commander of Air Force Space Command with his/her responsibility to organize, train and equip space forces.”

This plan comes just weeks after Congress in the 2018 NDAA nixed a previous plan to create an Air Force three-star “deputy chief of staff for space operations,” dubbed A-11. Air Force Space Command chief Gen. John Raymond announced the A-11 decision in April with much fanfare at the National Space Symposium. The intent was to nominate then Vice Commander of Air Force Space Command Maj. Gen. David D. Thompson to the position. Leaders of the House Armed Services Committee’s strategic forces subcommittee derided the idea and led a push to eliminate the A-11, calling for space forces to have more autonomy within the Air Force.

It is not clear whether the Air Force intends to select Thompson to serve in the new D.C.-based vice commander slot. Thompson since July has been special assistant to the commander of Air Force Space Command at Peterson Air Force Base, Colorado. Maj. Gen. Robert J. Skinner is the two-star deputy commander of Air Force Space Command, a job that would remain in Colorado.

Russell pointed out that the Air Force “will not establish the position and office of the deputy chief of staff of the Air Force for space operations.” And the service continues to “review acquisition management and governance to implement this act as well as acquisition reform authorized in previous defense authorization legislation.”

A Capitol Hill source said a move to create a new three-star office may make sense for the Air Force, but it might not go over well with lawmakers who want less bureaucracy. “The rhetoric on the Hill has been about removing boxes from the org chart,” the source said. “Adding a new slot may not resonate on the Hill.”

House Armed Services Committee Chairman Rep. Mac Thornberry did not comment specifically on the Air Force proposal on Tuesday during a breakfast meeting with reporters. In general, he said, his committee will be “watching very carefully” how the Air Force goes about implementing the NDAA provisions concerning the management of space. The House voted for the creation of a stand-alone space corps within the Department of the Air Force but the proposal was rejected by the Senate.

“What we came up with in last year’s NDAA was a compromise that did not set up a separate space corps but did try to improve accountability for space,” Thornberry said. “It’s too early to say how well that’s worked. We’re just in the early days.”

Many lawmakers remain doubtful that the Air Force is “culturally” able to focus on space as much as it does on air operations, Thornberry said. “You can move boxes around. You can spend more money. But you still have to give it the priority that is required, not only for war fighting, but for our national day-to-day life,” he said. “Those of us who have received classified briefings are increasingly concerned about the country’s ability to continue to depend on space in our daily lives as we have.”

The strategic forces subcommittee led by Chairman Mike Rogers “has done great work raising the issue and coming up with what it seemed to me was a very sensible answer,” Thornberry said. Rogers and other members of the HASC have made it clear that the debate over the space corps is far from over.