Military Quarterly | USAF Secretary Pick Professes Limited Knowledge on Space Issues

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WASHINGTON — U.S. President Barack Obama’s nominee to be the next secretary of the U.S. Air Force told lawmakers she would work on continuing to improve the service’s space acquisition program, but sidestepped several other space-related questions including ones pertaining to national security satellite launches.

In a written response to questions from the Senate Armed Services Committee, which is responsible for her confirmation, Deborah Lee James said she lacked detailed knowledge of many of the service’s space programs.

“I do understand many of these capabilities exist to support national security objectives,” she wrote.

Obama nominated James, an SAIC executive and former House Armed Services Committee staffer, Aug. 1 to succeed Michael Donley as secretary of the Air Force. Donley retired in August and Eric Fanning is currently serving as acting secretary.

James’ nomination has been held up twice, once by Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) over the future of the Operationally Responsive Space Office, currently located at Kirtland Air Force Base, N.M., and once by Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) over the future of the A-10 Thunderbolt jet. Heinrich recently released his hold after receiving assurances that the Operational Responsive Space Office would remain open at least through the remainder of the current fiscal year; Ayotte lifted her hold Oct. 18, clearing the way for confirmation..

A vote could come at any time.  

In her 36-page written response to senators’ questions submitted in September, James said improving the Air Force space acquisition program continues to be a priority. The service has struggled with cost growth and delays on numerous space acquisition programs since the mid-1990s.  

James pointed to the space launch program as evidence the service has made “acquisition excellence a top priority.”  

The Air Force is pursuing a dual-track strategy to reduce the costs of its Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) program, whose price tag has risen dramatically in the last decade. The service is negotiating the sole-source purchase of up to 36 EELV rocket cores over five years from the incumbent contractor, United Launch Alliance of Denver, and plans to competitively award an additional 14 missions to give newcomers like Space Exploration Technologies Corp. a crack at winning its business.

The National Reconnaissance Office (NRO), which buys the nation’s spy satellites, is one of three parties, along with the Defense Department and NASA, that signed a memorandum of understanding for EELV in March 2011. The memorandum outlines the responsibilities of each agency to stabilize the space launch industrial base while recognizing the need for new entrants to ensure long-term access to space. 

But in response to a question on whether the NRO should develop a similar strategy to foster competition in launch services, James said she was insufficiently familiar with the current agreement to answer.

“If confirmed, I will make it a priority to understand the Air Force and NRO new entrant strategies, their differences and opportunities to partner together to ensure success in the Service and NRO missions,” she said.

In their questions, the senators also hinted at a plan to station Air Force personnel at the NRO on a permanent basis, rather than rotate them in and out. 

“The Air Force rotates personnel through the NRO, which has proven useful in developing synergy between space programs serving both intelligence and military needs,” the question read. “Proposals have been given to develop a core set of personnel at the NRO which maintains core service functions and maintains a long term institutional memory and capability. Would you support this proposal by putting a subset of Air Force personnel on a long term basis at the NRO?”

James said she would support continuing the rotation scheme as a way to help Air Force officers learn more about intelligence and military needs.

“The Air Force has historically had a close working relationship with the NRO. If confirmed, I look forward to continuing this working relationship with rotations of Air Force personnel through the NRO,” she wrote. “Overall it is important to create a cadre of space professionals with breadth of knowledge across mission areas balanced with technical depth and focused mission expertise as required.”

James also said she would work with the NRO director, Betty Sapp, to increase cooperation on space matters. 

But James begged off on some other space-related questions, saying she did not have a thorough enough understanding of the subject matter. That included a question on whether the overall responsibility for space programs, known in military acquisition parlance as milestone decision authority, should stay with the undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology and logistics, or be moved back to the undersecretary of the Air Force. 

James also passed on a question about the Air Force’s unique needs “to prompt global reach and affordable, responsive space lift mission” and whether “changes in current test range structure, operations, and mission assurance” were needed for experimental spacecraft.

 

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