Space reforms coming: 2018 NDAA drops legislative bombshells on U.S. Air Force

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The National Defense Authorization Act blasts the Air Force for a “broken national security space enterprise.”

WASHINGTON — For the military space world, the big headline from Capitol Hill Wednesday was that the final version of the 2018 National Defense Authorization Act does not, at least for now, require the Pentagon to create a new “space corps.”

This might seem like a victory for the Air Force. Senior leaders had fought back the House space corps provision that would have effectively taken away from the Air Force its ownership of military space.

It’s a hollow victory, however. The 2018 NDAA is big on Pentagon reforms, across the board, but it hammered the Air Force especially hard.

The NDAA conference report blasts the Air Force for a “broken national security space enterprise,” strips key authorities from the service and shifts much of the management of military space to the deputy secretary of defense.

The leaders of the defense committees said in a statement they are “proud of the bipartisan process that led to this conference report, which took hard work and thoughtful collaboration from members on both sides of the aisle.”

The full text of the bill should be released Thursday. The House will consider the measure next week and the Senate said in plans to take it up before the Thanksgiving recess.

The House called the legislation a step toward “fundamental reform of national security space.” The NDAA language bears the heavy footprint of Strategic Forces Subcommittee Chairman Mike Rogers (R-Ala.) and Ranking Member Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.).

The report specifically calls for “streamlining Air Force acquisition authorities, eliminating burdensome red tape, empowering a single accountable organization for space forces within the Air Force, placing renewed emphasis on the organization and management of space in the DoD, and holding the deputy secretary of defense responsible for the full and faithful execution of these improvements.”

New role for Space Command

The NDAA empowers Air Force Space Command as the sole authority for organizing, training, and equipping all U.S. Air Force space forces. Air Force Space Command is made the focal point for a “space service” within the Air Force responsible for acquisition, resources and requirements.” This cadre of space “war fighters” would be tasked to fix the “systemic problems Congress identified in the national security space enterprise.”

The Air Force Space Command would be modeled after the Office of Naval Reactors, stressing deep technical expertise. The bill gives the commander of Air Force Space Command a six-year term.

The NDAA delivers a direct blow to Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson by stripping her of the role of top space adviser to the secretary of defense and diminishing her power to set budget priorities. The report characterizes the secretary’s office as “burdensome and ineffective bureaucracy.”

The legislation eliminates the principal defense space adviser, the Defense Space Council and the deputy chief of staff of the Air Force for space operations — a newly created office the NDAA report derides as a “hastily developed half-measure that at best only added a box on the organizational chart.”

Deputy Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan would assign a manager to oversee space budget priorities, “but such official cannot be the secretary of the Air Force.”

The space corps is being put on hold, but Rogers is not giving up on the idea. Shanahan is being directed to hire a federally funded research-and-development corporation — one that is not affiliated with the Air Force — to provide Congress with a “roadmap to establish a separate military department responsible for national security space activities of the DoD.”

The Senate Armed Services Committee’s report is just as critical of the current space organization.

“Decision making with respect to space is currently fragmented across more than 60 offices in DoD,” said the conference report. It points out research-and-development funding for space programs is at a 30-year low, while the “threats in and our reliance on space are at their highest and growing.” Space programs are “programmatically unsynchronized across systems in orbit, ground stations, and terminals.”

The NDAA renames the operationally responsive space program office as the Space Rapid Capabilities Office, the head of which reports to Air Force Space Command.

On future space launch investments, the NDAA, as it has in previous years, states that funds for the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle program should focus on the development of a domestic rocket propulsion system to replace the Russian RD-180 engine that United Launch Alliance currently uses to power the Atlas 5, the Air Force’s workhorse rocket.

The House Armed Services Committee said it “continues to view the nation’s assured access to space as a national security priority. This includes a continued focus on the development of a new U.S. rocket engine to replace the Russian RD-180 engine.” The committee also cautioned it will monitor how the Air Force spends EELV dollars to “ensure that DoD funds authorized for the development of existing and planned commercial launch vehicles are spent primarily for national security space missions to meet the assured access to space requirements.”

What’s Next

Industry consultant Mike Tierney, of Jacques & Associates, said these reforms are likely to become law although the Air Force and DoD as a last recourse could approach the Senate Appropriations defense subcommittee (SAC-D) and request help delaying implementation.

However, Tierney said, “given that the NDAA is a conferenced policy position of the House and Senate, the SAC-D would be very hesitant to wade into what is strictly policy changes with no appropriations implications. Our assessment is that the changes directed in the NDAA conference will have to be implemented by the DoD and the Air Force.”

Aerospace industry analyst Todd Harrison, of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, commented that the NDAA “doesn’t simply reject the space corps. It slaps the Air Force pretty hard and appears to lay the groundwork for creating a separate department for national security space in the future.”

He called the NDAA a “clear rebuke of the current space organization within DoD and a lack of confidence in the Air Force leadership.”

On the removal of space oversight and budget functions from the secretary of the Air Force, Harrison tweeted: “Ouch.”