For Rep. Rogers, fighting through a war in space starts with fixing acquisition

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As chairman of the House Armed Services strategic forces subcommittee,  Rep. Mike Rogers is a driving force in military space policy and oversight.

Last September, the Alabama Republican vowed to make “major reform” of the national security space sector a centerpiece of this year’s defense authorization bill.

“It is all too clear that our military is not organized and prepared to fight and win a war in space,” Rogers said.

Since then, the chairman has been refining what his “disruptive” changes might look like — and space acquisition is a key target.

SpaceNews sat down with the congressman in his Washington office to discuss his desire to reorganize national security space operations  — including eventually establishing a brand-new “Space Force” as a component of the military.

You’ve said you want to shake up how the military handles space operations. What changes would you like to see?

As I’ve been chairing this subcommittee for the last four years, we have seen time and again that our ability to meet new challenges in space is lethargic at best.

As we’ve interacted with people who make satellites and operate satellites in the commercial sector, they talk about how difficult it is to interact with the Air Force and the Defense Department in trying to help them meet their needs.

The commercial sector will tell us that if a commercial customer comes to them and says, ‘I need this capability in space within 18 to 36 months,’ they will get it; It’s up in space and it’s working. It takes the Defense Department six to eight years. That’s just unacceptable, particularly given the threats that we currently face and the aggressive nature that our adversaries have taken in this area.

So what I want to do is take the organizational construct that currently exists, and start pulling out some of the problems. You may have seen a hearing I had where I had the staff put together a chart of who all is involved in the acquisition process for space. It’s 60 different people who can say, ‘No’ — and yet nobody owns it. Nobody owns responsibility for what doesn’t happen, or doesn’t happen in a timely manner. That would never fly in the private sector and it’s unacceptable in the public sector.

I’m going to be working aggressively in this Congress to come up with ways to change that, to eliminate a lot of those folks from having an ability to stop new acquisitions, and hopefully come up with an efficient system that will meet some of our acquisition challenges.

What form might that take? A dedicated space acquisitions office with sole purchasing power?

I don’t think so. That’s one of the four things that the GAO report recommended was a space version of the Missile Defense Agency. I don’t necessarily think that’s the answer.

What I do think is that ultimately we’re going to have a “Space Force.” But getting from where we are now to a space force in 10 or 12 years, is the question. We don’t want to be too disruptive so that we interfere with our combatant commands’ ability to get what they need from these assets. Because that’s what we have to remember: we’re using these assets now. Our ability to network them, to interact with them, cannot be disrupted by organizational change.

We’ve got to figure out in the coming weeks and months what is the best sequence of events that gets us from where we are now — where 90 percent of national security space operations are controlled by the Air Force — to what I believe is the ultimate solution: a space force down the road.

This is not dissimilar at all from the phenomena that occurred within the Army when the Army Air Corps ultimately became the Air Force after 26 years of this same sequence of events and for the same reasons.

What are some of the best ways for the Pentagon to leverage commercial space capabilities?

I’m excited the commercial space industry is pretty vibrant right now; got some real robust growth and technology development in there. I’m not really sure the market is there for all of the growth that’s taken place, but I think there’s some real chances for partnerships and we’re exploring those now.

The Air Force is interacting a lot with some of the major players to find out how those partnerships will work. We’re working right now with a couple of companies, in particular on the launch side, trying to get a replacement for the RD-180 engine. So the partnership potential’s there. We’ve just got to find out what fits with our needs because, you know, national security space and commercial space are different.

Is the development of a replacement for the Atlas 5 rocket’s RD-180 moving quickly enough? Is it moving in a direction you’re satisfied with?

Well, it’s not quick enough. I’m very happy that we’re staying after it. My subcommittee, our full committee, this Congress, is committed to not stop until we have an American-made engine that can get our national security space assets launched. And we’re not going to stop. I’m encouraged. I think we’re pretty close to getting a new engine that’s going to be viable.

What would you like to see from President Trump in support of space operations?

I would like to see him be supportive of what we’re trying to do with these organizational changes. Change does not come easily to any organization, but with one as big as the Defense Department it is really hard to bring about change. So it’d be nice to see the Trump administration embrace the fact that our current organizational construct in the Air Force primarily, in the Defense Department, is not working and we’ve got to do something significantly different.

That would facilitate a lot of this change happening at a smoother, quicker pace. Again, we don’t have 26 years like it took to bring the Air Force out of the Army. So Trump being supportive, or his administration being supportive, would be helpful.

Also, there’s been some talk that the Trump administration is talking about reconstituting the National Space Council. I’m not a big fan of that idea. I’m trying to get rid of layers of interference and decision making and streamline it, and I think that would be a step backwards. So I kind of hope they step away from that.

So if no National Space Council, who would have ultimate acquisition and decision making authority? Where would you put that responsibility?

At the Air Force secretary level for the time being, and maybe permanently.

These changes and reorganizations that we’ve discussed, do you think they’re going to take a full act of Congress?

Yes.

Is the congressional support there?

When I speak to my colleagues and describe it and make them aware, absolutely. This is not complicated, as far as the concept goes. It gets complicated when we start talking about the details of these systems and what each does. But just generally talking to my colleagues, it’s not hard to point out how reliant we as a society have become on space, and that the military’s the same way. And then when you describe the example I gave you — about government space compared to the private sector — they get it immediately.

But you’ve got to have the dialog. We haven’t been having it. We’re going to have to have it. Once you do that, it’s an easy sell. And, frankly, compared to some of the other areas we spend money on in the Defense Department, this is a pretty inexpensive set of capabilities.

Are there any particular programs or areas you would like to see get a funding increase?

We’ve got to start modernizing the systems we have now, as well as our ground-based controls and networks. We’ve had some real problems with the next-generation operational control system for GPS and that’s just not acceptable. The Advanced Extremely High Frequency satellite system, we’re not fully utilizing it, so we’ve got to start addressing those facts.

I also want to see us put a lot more money into R&D to start preparing to meet the challenges that we’re facing from our adversaries. When you look at China and Russia and how aggressive they’re being in space, we’ve got to outpace that. We can never let ourselves become peers with those folks.

But you’ve got some areas like space situational awareness where the U.S. is working with China and Russia to make sure our satellites don’t bump into each other. How do you balance secrecy with that international cooperation?

They have a lot of information. These people aren’t rubes when it comes to this business. They are pretty sophisticated. But that doesn’t mean that there’s not some degree of coordination that we should be having with our adversaries for the very reason you just mentioned.

What they have to understand, though, is that in any way messing with — that’s an Alabama term — one of our satellites would cause an unacceptable level of pain from us. That has to be our doctrine. We’ve got to get to that place.

How do you determine what an appropriate response is? If someone disrupts a U.S. satellite, how do you determine if that warrants a diplomatic or a kinetic response?

I don’t know how much I can say in an unclassified setting. I think our adversaries know certain things that they cannot disturb without us taking it as an act of war. I think that’s a fair statement.

What’s your top priority for space in 2017?

Reorganizing defense space, particularly the acquisition area. Coming up with a path forward from where we are now to a freestanding space force at some time in the distant future. I don’t know what that path’s going to look like, what the timeline’s going to be like, but that’s my No. 1 priority.

I do want to emphasize I do not see the National Reconnaissance Office being a part of that. What they’re doing is working. I don’t want anybody thinking that we’re trying to pull the NRO into this.

I also want to raise the profile of this issue so that more of my colleagues in the Congress, and more Americans for that matter, realize this is an area that cannot be ignored any longer. We have to meet this aggressively. If we don’t, the results will be unacceptable. The consequences will be unacceptable.

What’s the first step down that path? Are you preparing any legislation to address those issues?

We’re still trying to decide what the path looks like. We’re still very preliminary in it. But I do plan in this Congress to start putting in statute some things that will start setting that path, knowing that this can’t be done in one Congress. It can’t be done in two Congresses. But you can set the path and make sure that we’re on a course that’s not going to be reversed.