Air Force Secretary fires back at Space Development Agency

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SN Military.Space Sandra Erwin

There’s been quite a bit of fireworks at the 35th Space Symposium. Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson on Tuesday shot back at the new director of the Space Development Agency Fred Kennedy, who has laid out a plan to disrupt the military space business by bringing more commercial technology into space systems in order to speed up innovation in the face of competition from China and Russia.

In a keynote speech, Wilson forcefully challenged the SDA vision arguing that the military’s current constellations of satellites in higher orbits are “the best in the world” and that shifting to LEO systems would put U.S. forces at risk. Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan has been a strong proponent of the new agency and decided to place it under the authority of Undersecretary of Defense Mike Griffin, who like Kennedy, is a strong believer that military space acquisitions must change radically and that commercial LEO systems should be leveraged as soon as possible.

Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson speaks April 9, 2019 at the 35th Space Symposium. Credit: Tom Kimmell
Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson speaks April 9, 2019 at the 35th Space Symposium. Credit: Tom Kimmell

Wilson cited a 90-day “Space Strategy Study” that was recently completed by the Air Force and the intelligence community and concluded that LEO-based systems would be vulnerable during military conflicts and that DoD should not be taking that risk.

The SDA plan might work for some scenarios but would be reckless to apply across the board in military space systems, Wilson said. “Different missions will require different solutions. One size does not fit all.”

AIR FORCE SPACE STUDY The Air Force’s 90-day study was kicked off in late 2018, just as the Pentagon was putting final touches on a plan to stand up the SDA. Wilson said the study will not be publicly released for some time but she provided a few nuggets from the findings, which she said were the result of “thousands of war games and simulations.”

  • Increasing the number of satellites helps but numbers alone are not enough,” she said. And she noted that the Air Force already has moved to transition to commercial systems in areas like satellite communications.” This will drive all the services toward low-cost multi-band satellite communications terminals, a change that Kennedy also advocates.
  • Wilson said the study found that space missions “that are not well aligned with commercial LEO satellites are better off staying where they are, or making changes to protect themselves.” The SDA, conversely, would be open to the idea of transitioning most if not all military missions to LEO if the concept proves to be successful in future tests.

The Air Force for the past two years has been studying ways to make systems more resilient and has asked for bigger budgets to support that, Wilson said. She is not against using LEO systems but she warned that “launching hundreds of cheap satellites a year as a substitute to the complex architectures we provide to the warfighter will result in failure on America’s worst day if we rely upon them alone.”

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