WASHINGTON — Former U.S. ambassador Barbara Barrett, the president’s nominee to be the next secretary of the Air Force, said the United States has to prepare to defend its assets in space and deter adversaries by investing in advanced space technology, training and education. In testimony on Thursday. Barrett voiced strong support for the Trump administration’s proposal to establish a a separate military space service under the Department of the Air Force. She said standing up a Space Force is a “key imperative.”
Barrett appeared in front of the Senate Armed Services Committee at a joint confirmation hearing with Army secretary nominee Ryan McCarthy. A full Senate vote on their nominations is scheduled for Sept. 19.
Trump announced on May 21 he had selected Barrett to replace former secretary Heather Wilson, but the actual nomination was submitted to the Senate Sept. 9. Since Wilson’s departure May 31, undersecretary Matt Donovan has served as acting secretary.
Members of the Senate Armed Services Committee already have indicated they will back her nomination. Barrett was introduced at the hearing by fellow Arizonan Sen. Martha McSally. McSally called Barrett a “phenomenal choice” to be secretary of the Air Force.
Sen. David Perdue (R-Ga.) issued a statement Wednesday in support of Barrett. “Ambassador Barrett is a well-respected aeronautics expert with years of international business experience,” Perdue said. “Without a doubt, Barrett’s experience as both a pilot and astronaut will be a tremendous asset to the Department of Defense as we work to develop our capabilities and counter global threats.”
If confirmed, Barrett would bring a wide range of experience to the job as the Air Force’s top civilian leader. She is a former U.S. ambassador to Finland, four-term chairman of the space-focused non-profit Aerospace Corporation, governance vice chairman of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory at Caltech, and deputy administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration. Barrett was the first civilian woman to land a Navy F/A-18 fighter on an aircraft carrier and was certified for space travel.
Her views on space align with the administration’s national defense strategy that calls for the military to be prepared for a superpower competition with China and Russia.
“Space is increasingly a strategic friction point,” she said in prepared testimony. “Competition for access, capability, and protection in space is intensifying.” Barrett called China and Russia the “most pressing threats to U.S. interests.” But other potential adversaries like North Korea and Iran “recognize the importance of space power to our defense and our way of life.” With more countries developing satellite jammers and other technologies to disrupt signals, “we must anticipate that they would attempt to deny our use of space during a conflict.”
In her statement, Barrett said China and Russia are “aggressively growing their capability to exploit space for communications, navigation, and intelligence purposes while simultaneously developing a broad range of counterspace technologies.”
U.S. access to space has to be preserved, she stated. “In my view, we must prepare to defend critical space assets and increase resilience of our space enterprise.” All elements of American national power depend upon space, Barrett added. “Deterring a conflict in space must be a top priority. Should deterrence fail we must be prepared to fight and win.”
If confirmed, Barrett would be taking over as Air Force secretary while the House and Senate prepare to negotiate the final version of the 2020 National Defense Authorization Act. Among the many contentious items to be haggled over is the establishment of a Space Force, or a Space Corps, as the House proposed. In her two years in office, former secretary Wilson clashed with lawmakers and with DoD leaders over the space reorganization. Barrett’s statements suggests she is in full alignment with the administration. One of her challenges coming in will be to work with Congress and DoD to get the new branch off the ground.
“I am in full support of the establishment of the U.S. Space Force,” Barrett said. “A domain-specific service to organize, train, and equip space forces is overdue,” she added. “The U.S. Space Force is needed to address current and future threats and strategic opportunities in space.”
Barrett said that as Air Force secretary she would work to ensure the new branch is successful. “Cultivating a strategic warfighting ethos within the U.S. Space Force would be a top priority of my tenure.” She also would recommend the Air Force and Space Force share resources in areas like infrastructure and recruiting.
Barrett in her written statement said she would support a controversial provision in the Senate version of the 2020 National Defense Authorization Act that creates a new position of Principal Assistant to the Secretary of the Air Force for Space Acquisition and Integration, responsible for space acquisition within the Department of the Air Force. “If confirmed, I will oversee the establishment of this new position and transfer of space acquisition functions from the current Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics,” Barrett wrote.
Speeding up space acquisitions would be a priority for Barrett, she said. It is important to “meet the critical needs posed by advancing space threats.” One way she would do that is by delegating more decision authority and using congressional rapid acquisition authorizations like Section 804.
On the future relationships between the Space Force and the National Reconnaissance Office, Barrett said there should be a “very close partnership” in the development and operation of an integrated national security space architecture. The Air Force and the NRO share design and architecture work, she noted. “If confirmed, I would continue this essential and symbiotic partnership.”
National Security Space Launch
Barrett said she is encouraged by private sector investments in space launch vehicles and the introduction of new players into the National Security Space Launch program.
“Properly structured, competition among vendors tends to discipline prices and motivate innovation to benefit both the warfighter and the taxpayer,” she wrote. “If confirmed, I would continue the current innovative acquisition strategies while seeking to obviate reliance upon foreign rocket engines for access to space.”
The committee asked Barrett if she believes the space launch market can sustain four launch providers. That is how many companies are competing for contracts in the National Security Space Launch Phase 2 Launch Service Procurement.
Barrett said the limited number of government missions is not enough to support four launch providers, so commercial business would be needed to keep providers competitive. “New, disruptive participants have already improved elements of the launch business and transformed thinking about what is possible,” she observed. “Whether four providers are sustained in the long run or not, benefits accrue from participation of innovative thinking in the market.”
One of the goals of the NSSL program is to develop domestic rockets so the Air Force can stop launching satellites on United Launch Alliance’s Atlas 5 rocket powered by the Russian RD-180 engine. Barrett was asked whether as Air Force secretary, she would consider seeking a waiver under section 1601 of the FY 2017 NDAA to purchase RD-180 engines for national security missions. Barrett responded that she would comply with congressional direction. “Still, we have a lift problem until we develop reliable domestic rocket engines with lift to meet our National Security Space needs.”