U.S. Air Force Gen. Mark Welsh. Credit: DOD/Erin A. Kirk-Cuomo

WASHINGTON — The chief of staff of the U.S. Air Force said the command structure of a planned joint Defense Department-intelligence community space operations center is under discussion but that regardless of the outcome, he does not envision the Defense Department relinquishing control of Air Force satellites.

Speaking to reporters here Aug. 24, Air Force Gen. Mark Welsh played down the notion of a turf war between the Air Force and the intelligence community over control of the planned Joint Interagency Coalition Operations Space Center, which industry sources say could open by Oct. 1.

Defense Department officials disclosed plans for the new space traffic management center in June, initially characterizing it as a backup to the Pentagon’s existing Joint Space Operations Center, or JSpOC. Since then, however, some Defense Department officials said the Joint Interagency Coalition Operations Center, utilizing not only Air Force and intelligence community but also allied assets, could eventually take over the primary facility for space-related missions including launch support, collision avoidance and threat identification.

Longstanding bureaucratic rivalries between the Pentagon and intelligence community also have raised the inevitable question of who would have the lead role at the new center. U.S. Strategic Command, which oversees the JSpOC, said in July that this remains to be determined, and Welsh said those discussions are ongoing.

“The discussion — I wouldn’t call it a debate as much as a discussion — involves both the secretary and deputy secretary of defense,” he said. “All the pieces are there; we just have to figure out how to fit them together and make sure the authorities are clear, and that’s going to be the difficult part of this.”

Deborah Lee James, secretary of the Air Force; Navy Adm. Cecil Haney, commander of U.S. Strategic Command; and Gen. John Hyten, commander of Air Force Space Command, as well as representatives from the National Security Council and other White House officials, also are involved in the discussions, Welsh said.

But when asked if a member of the intelligence community could command a Defense Department satellite, Welsh said: “I personally don’t see that happening, but there’s going to have to be a clear set of authorities decided upon, debated and agreed upon eventually by all the people who participate. If nothing else, we need to have visibility into what the owners of these assets are doing under the circumstances of any particular future scenario.”

Mike Gruss covers military space issues, including the U.S. Air Force and Missile Defense Agency, for SpaceNews. He is a graduate of Miami University in Oxford, Ohio.