U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has put to rest recent speculation that U.S. Air Force Space Command would be taken down a notch within the overall Air Force command structure, but he also confirmed that the organization could shed its space-procurement oversight role.

In an April 12 letter to Sen. Wayne Allard (R-Colo.), a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Rumsfeld said the Pentagon will soon nominate a four-star general to replace Gen. Lance Lord (ret.), who stepped down as commander of Air Force Space Command in early March.

Allard, whose state hosts Space Command at Peterson Air Force Base here, had written Rumsfeld March 1 to express concern that the job of running the organization would be downgraded to a three-star billet. The rumors to that effect were fueled in part by the fact that the Pentagon had yet to nominate a four-star successor to Lord even as his retirement date drew near.

“A nominee for this important position will be forwarded to the Senate for consent and approval in the near future,” Rumsfeld wrote.

But the defense secretary offered no such reassurances on another concern raised by Allard: the possibility that Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center (SMC), which procures space and missile hardware, will be taken out of Space Command’s bailiwick and placed back under Air Force Materiel Command, which oversees most other service procurement. That move would reverse the 2001 shift in SMC’s reporting chain that was undertaken as part of a broader realignment designed to raise the profile of space within the U.S. military.

“A decision on the Space and Missile Systems Center has not yet been made,” Rumsfeld wrote. “The Air Force is reviewing all similar centers to determine the best organizational alignment for the Air Force and Combatant Commanders.”

If it were up to Lt. Gen. Frank Klotz, acting commander of Air Force Space Command, SMC would stay right where it is today. In a recent interview, Klotz said it makes sense to keep the service’s space-procurement experts directly connected to those who operate the systems and develop their requirements.

But Klotz noted that the decision on SMC’s disposition is not his to make. In any case, he said, Space Command’s responsibilities — which traditionally include operating and maintaining the nation’s ICBM fleet as well as its military space systems — are growing.

Relentless demand

With U.S. forces actively engaged in Iraq and Afghanistan, there is no letup in the demand for the satellite-based services that Space Command provides. This makes it unlikely that the organization will lose jobs anytime soon, even as the Air Force seeks to reduce its overall personnel levels by about 40,000 positions , according to Col. Robert Rego, of Space Command’s planning and analysis directorate.

Space Command is more likely to see growth as it works to meet demand for space-based services including GPS navigation and timing signals, and communications bandwidth for rapidly expanding fleets of unmanned aerial vehicles, Rego said during an April 3 interview at Peterson .

An expanding portfolio

Meanwhile, Space Command could be taking on some new roles as the Air Force prepares to meet evolving challenges, among them information operations. In an interview shortly before his retirement, Lord noted that there is natural synergy between space and information operations.

Another possible new mission is global strike, for which Space Command would leverage its experience with ICBMs. Pentagon officials have talked about being able to hit fleeting targets anywhere on the globe on short notice, perhaps with conventional rather than nuclear weapons.

“We have a lot of experience in the operation of ICBMs — we know something about operating systems that have an intercontinental reach — and I think we have an expertise and some concepts we could bring to the discussion on how best to do that mission,” Klotz said.

Maintaining and upgrading the ICBM fleet also is a key Space Command responsibility, and there is a lot of activity on this front these days. The Air Force is busy changing out the aging solid- propellant loads in the missiles and upgrading the guidance systems to make them easier and more affordable to sustain, Klotz said.

The size of the Minuteman fleet will shrink from 500 to 450 rockets, in accordance with recommendations from the latest Quadrennial Defense Review, which guides Pentagon planning and budgetary decisions. But that reduction is not likely to affect the number of ICBM bases that Space Command maintains, Klotz said.

Another item that has emerged as a high priority in recent months for Air Force Space Command is homeland security, which today is a focus of activities and discussions ranging from war-game planning to the use of so-called near space vehicles.

Space Command’s role in homeland security was highlighted during the government response to hurricanes that hit the U.S. Gulf Coast last year, Klotz said. In the early phases of those efforts, relief officials relied heavily on satellite communications and GPS navigation signals in areas where the local infrastructure, including landmarks, had been destroyed, he said.

Space Command also found ways of pitching in that are unrelated to space. The command uses a fleet of 20 or so helicopters to patrol its ICBM fields, for example, and was able to divert some of those aircraft to help with the relief effort , Klotz said.

The next generation

Internally, Space Command is working hard on professional development of its officer and enlisted corps. One recent achievement on this front cited by Klotz was student s’ completion of a prototype advanced-level course at the command’s National Security Space Institute .

The Space 300 course will become formally available to students at the institute in October, according to Air Force Col. Tom Peppard, chief of space professional development at Air Force Space Command. Space 300 , which focuses on space policy, doctrine and legal issues, is intended for majors, lieutenant colonels and senior non-commissioned officers, Peppard said in an April 3 interview at Peterson .

The National Security Space Institute already has two courses available to junior officers and enlisted personnel : Space 100, which is an introduction to space issues; and Space 200, which includes a more in-depth focus on acquisition and operations issues . Completion of these courses is essential for officers seeking to move up the ladder at Air Force Space Command, Peppard said.

The space professionals remain relatively unfazed by the criticism from members of Congress and others concerned with the problems that have plagued space acquisition programs, Klotz said.

“While there may be a lot of articles and comments on the state of space acquisition, our folks who are actually [acquiring], operating and maintaining, securing and supporting those systems in the field are focused on their missions — their morale is quite high,” Klotz said.

Comments: jsinger@space.com