The recent decision to divide the duties of U.S. Air Force undersecretary and National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) director has raised concerns among key military and congressional leaders about the future availability of intelligence data products to U.S. fighting forces.

In a July 25 interview, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. John Jumper credited the 2001 decision to combine the positions with contributing to the military’s “phenomenal” success during the spring 2003 invasion of Iraq by getting critical spy satellite data into the hands of U.S. forces quickly. “The ability to get traditional platforms based on a principle of collect, analyze and report, and turn them into a vital player in a real time fight on the ground is a significant breakthrough as far as I’m concerned, and it’s done by people looking for ways to integrate all of space in real time,” he said.

The NRO operates a fleet of classified satellites whose main purpose is gathering information to support the intelligence community and strategic decision-makers. But the data also has immense tactical value, and making it available to U.S. military forces was a major rationale for folding the NRO director’s job into that of Air Force undersecretary.

U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld approved combining the positions based on the recommendations of an expert panel — which he chaired prior to his nomination to the Pentagon’s top job — that was commissioned by Congress to review U.S. military space activities. The combined position was given to space industry veteran Peter B. Teets, who retired this past spring.

But the move did not sit well with some in the intelligence community, who complained that Teets was unable to devote sufficient attention to the NRO because of his other duties. On July 22, the Pentagon announced that CIA technologist Don Kerr had been selected to run the NRO and that the position would be separate from that of Air Force undersecretary.

U.S. Reps. Terry Everett (R-Ala.) and Silvestre Reyes (D-Texas), chairman and ranking member, respectively, of the House Armed Services strategic forces subcommittee, wrote the nation’s top three national security officials July 27 asking them to explain the split and how it might affect the integration of classified and unclassified space activities. The letters were addressed to White House National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley, National Intelligence Director John Negroponte and Rumsfeld, and a copy of one was provided to Space News.

The lawmakers, both of whom also sit on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, expressed concern as to whether steps to coordinate or merge the space activities of the Air Force and NRO will continue under the new arrangement. “The customers of Air Force space systems and NRO space systems are the same,” they wrote.

Everett and Reyes also suggested the move could weaken the Air Force’s role in the NRO, potentially compounding the military’s space acquisition problems and weakening Air Force advocacy for the spy satellite agency.

Concern about the NRO-Air Force leadership split is not universally shared among congressional leaders however. In a brief interview following a July 28 confirmation hearing for five nominees to top Pentagon posts, Sen. John Warner (R-Va.), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said he had no reason to question the decision.

Among the nominees who testified at the hearing was Ronald Sega, the White House’s pick to be Air Force undersecretary. Sega currently serves as the director of defense research and engineering.

Sega, whom the Air Force had expected until recently to take the NRO role as well, was spared any space-related questions during the hearing. But in a written response to advance questions, the former astronaut conceded that he will come to his new position with a lot to learn.

In his written answers, which were provided to reporters at the hearing, Sega also said there is “more work to be done” on fixing the acquisition problems that have led to cost overruns and schedule delays across the Air Force’s space portfolio. He said that if confirmed by the Senate, he will make fixing those problems a top priority .

“To ensure we have a robust space acquisition approach we must continue our focus on mission success, consistently apply sound space acquisition policies, reconstitute our systems engineering capability, and — perhaps most importantly — develop an educated, trained, experienced space acquisition workforce for the future,” Sega said.

Sega, who was nominated for the undersecretary post June 28, said he has not “examined the details” on the service’s top new satellite development efforts — the Space Radar reconnaissance constellation and the Transformational Satellite Communications, or T-Sat, effort. Both programs are facing significant cuts to their 2006 budget requests and could be delayed into late next decade or beyond.

Sega said his lack of detailed knowledge on either program prevented him from answering questions about their cost and schedule . He also declined to answer a question on the need for a planned Space Radar demonstration in 2008 — a top priority of Teets — but said he would conduct such a demonstration “if required.”

Sega said he would conduct a review of both T-Sat and Space Radar to assess progress to date and any potential bumps in the road, and to set a plan for their futures.

Colin Clark contributed to this report.