BOSTON — The U.S. Air Force’s space acquisition and operations work force needs an infusion of civilian personnel, according to the service’s top uniformed space official.
Gen. Kevin Chilton, commander of Air Force Space Command, told reporters Nov. 17 that bringing in more civilians would give the service a greater continuity of skilled personnel because civilians would not be transferred the way military personnel are shifted to new posts after only a couple of years on a job. One way of boosting the number of skilled civilians in the Air Force space workforce is to recruit recently retired officers, Chilton said during a press briefing at the Air Force Association’s annual National Symposium on Space in Beverly Hills, Calif.
Air Force officials have often noted that the military’s policy of rotating personnel through jobs about every two years puts some inexperienced officials in charge of technically complex acquisition programs, then replaces them once they begin to gain experience.
Some Air Force bases with space in their portfolio have successfully developed a strong balance of uniformed and civilian personnel, Chilton said, citing as an example, the Air Force Electronic Systems Center at Hanscom Air Force Base, Mass. which works on satellite ground systems. However, the Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center in Los Angeles, which oversees most of the service’s satellite acquisition work, might have a workforce today that is too heavily weighted with uniformed personnel, Chilton said.
On the operations side, bringing in civilians with significant space operations experience will be important for the future, as the Air Force deploys more complicated satellites, Chilton said. He noted that satellites such as the Space Based Infrared System (SBIRS) High spacecraft and the planned constellation of Space Radar satellites will have payloads capable of being tasked to a far greater degree than those aboard most spacecraft today, and may require more skilled operators to take advantage of the new capabilities.
The Pentagon’s current missile warning constellation of Defense Support Program satellites features a sensor that scans the Earth looking for missile launches and other heat-intensive events. The SBIRS High satellites are slated to include a scanning sensor as well as a staring sensor that the Pentagon can point at areas of interest for long periods of time.
Robert Dickman, executive director of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, agreed with Chilton and said implementing those ideas might require overcoming some challenges such as attracting and keeping additional highly skilled civilians in the workforce at a place like the Space and Missile Systems Center in Los Angeles where the cost of living is high. Dickman, a retired Air Force major general who also served recently as the deputy for military space in the office of the undersecretary of the Air Force, said it is easier to station military personnel at SMC because they can live in government housing.
The Air Force also should make sure that increasing the number of highly skilled civilians in the workforce does not close off some senior positions to uniformed personnel, making it difficult for young military professionals to see a long career track in the service, he said.
The Air Force could also consider changing its assignment policies for space positions to boost experience levels among uniformed personnel, Dickman said.
“Some pilots spend enough time flying to become really, really good at operating a specific platform — F-15, F-16, etc.,” Dickman said. “There’s no reason we can’t do the same with space operators — as long as the promotion system doesn’t see it as ‘negative’ and the assignments process works to build that kind of strength, as well as well-rounded officers.”
Chilton also said the Air Force needs to improve recruitment of young space personnel.