Trump’s Air Force pick says increasing space-threat awareness a priority

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WASHINGTON – Heather Wilson, President Trump’s nominee to be the next U.S. Air Force secretary, said expanding awareness of space as a warfighting domain would be one of her priorities if she’s confirmed.

“There are a variety of things I think we need to do,” Wilson said. “But rethinking the way in which we think about space as a contested domain has to be part of it. It’s the development of strategies, techniques, and capabilities to be able to fight through, to be resilient, to be as crafty and successful in space as we are in air. That’s a very big change for the country to be starting to think that way. I think there’s some elements of the Air Force that already are starting to develop those thoughts.”

During her March 30 confirmation hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Wilson noted that she was serving on the House Intelligence Committee in 2007 when China put spacefaring nations on edge by demonstrating an anti-satellite weapon by deliberately destroying one of its aging Fengyun weather satellites.

“I don’t expect things have slowed down since then,” she said. “There is no question that space will be a contested domain in any future conflict.”

Beyond those comments, however, the issue of space did not come up again during the confirmation hearing, with senators choosing to focus on pilot shortages, nuclear modernization, the F-35 Lightning II, and the Air Force’s fight against the Islamic State terrorist group instead.

The committee’s chairman, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) often grills top Air Force officials about why the service is still relying on the Russian-made RD-180 engine for the United Launch Alliance Atlas 5. However, he did not broach the subject with Wilson during her testimony.

Wilson did say she would support increased Air Force investment in research and development, and attempt to reform acquisition to make it less ponderous — both efforts that could also impact the service’s space efforts.

If confirmed, Wilson would become the first graduate of the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs to be Air Force Secretary. She served in the military from 1982 to 1989, before joining the National Security Council staff under President George H. W. Bush. Wilson also served as the U.S. Representative for New Mexico’s 1st District from 1998 until 2009.

In written responses to questions provided to the committee before the hearing, Wilson said the Defense Department needs to deepen its understanding of the threats facing the space environment, and also committed to supporting competition in the commercial sector.

Below are Wilson’s responses to the written questions pertaining to space:

The Secretary of the Air Force was assigned new oversight responsibilities for space programs in the Department of Defense when the position was designated as the principal DoD space adviser (PDSA). If confirmed, would you propose any changes to National Security space policy and programs?

I look forward to my responsibilities as principal DOD space advisor and chairing the Defense Space Council. The Air Force is responsible for over 90% of the Defense Department’s space assets on orbit and the nation is heavily dependent on space capabilities for navigation, communication, command and control, intelligence, and precision targeting. I will seek to lead Department efforts to deepen our understanding of the growing threat to our space assets, refine our strategy for space control, and organize and equip the Air Force to meet the threat. In addressing these issues, I will work closely with the other services and federal agencies to align efforts where needed.

There is growing concern about the vulnerability of our nation’s space-based systems and its supporting architecture. Do you agree, and, if so, what would be your priorities for addressing these vulnerabilities?

Yes. As mentioned above, I will seek to lead Department efforts to deepen our understanding of the growing threat to our space assets, refine our strategy for space control, and organize and equip the Air Force to meet the threat. In addressing these issues, I will work closely with the other services and federal agencies to align efforts where needed.

What do you perceive as the threats to our national security space satellites?

Space is no longer a sanctuary. In any conflict, it will be a contested environment. I was serving on the House Intelligence Committee when China successfully tested an antisatellite missile nearly a decade ago. While I have not been briefed on classified matters for several years, it is my understanding that the threat to space assets has continued to advance.

Do you support the development of offensive space control capabilities to counter those threats?

Yes. We need to think of air, near-space and space as a continuum that the United States must protect through all phases of potential conflict.

According to a recent study by the Government Accountability Office (GAO), fragmented leadership has undermined the Department’s ability to deliver space capabilities to the warfighter on time and on budget. One repeated cause for concern has been fractured decision-making and many layers of bureaucracy. Do you believe the existing space acquisition structure is sufficient? If not, what changes do you believe are appropriate?

If confirmed, I will review the acquisition structure for space to ensure the warfighter is getting the capabilities we need at a reasonable price.

Do you support more competition in the launch of Department of Defense payloads?

I believe competition can result in cost savings for the government. At the same time, commercial launch providers may not be able to meet launch requirements for national security space payloads as those requirements are currently crafted. I also believe that it is very difficult for commercial launch providers to supply government customers at competitive prices because of the constraints imposed by federal acquisition rules. If those rules are the best way to serve the Air Force and the taxpayer well over the long term, their use is justifiable. But if our processes and regulations are impeding the accomplishment of the mission, we should review our processes and improve them.

The Fiscal Year 2017 National Defense Authorization Act prohibits the use of Russian rocket engines after December 31, 2022. Are you committed to ending U.S. dependence on the use of Russian rocket engines as soon as possible, perhaps even before December 31, 2022?

If confirmed, I will continue the Air Force’s commitment to ending U.S. dependence on the Russian RD-180 engine. The Air Force is currently working with industry to develop launch capability and transition from the RD-180. I understand that the Air Force estimates it will take until 2022 to have new launch capability available. I understand that the FY17 National Defense Authorization Act authorized the Air Force to buy 18 more RD-180 engines through December 31, 2022 for launches through 2024. If the transition can be done faster than 2022, I would support an earlier transition.