On National Security | Infighting over space reforms spills into public view

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“On National Security” appears in every issue of SpaceNews magazine. This column ran in the May 6, 2019 issue.

One of the storylines of the 35th Space Symposium last month in Colorado Springs was the exchange of verbal jabs between Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson and Defense Department officials. The symposium happened just a month after the establishment of the Space Development Agency, a move championed by Pentagon leaders and fiercely opposed by Wilson.

A few sound bites from symposium remarks and interviews.

Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan: “Unfortunately, the department is not moving fast enough to stay ahead … The Space Development Agency is what I call the pacing element of our plan … DoD must leverage the private sector investment … The market has shifted and our old business model won’t survive.”

Space Development Agency Director Fred Kennedy: “Unlike traditional satellite programs that cost billions of dollars and take decades to develop, the SDA proliferated architecture will be low cost and will accelerate the development of capabilities … Until now, everything has been pushing us towards ‘more expensive, more reviews, take your time’ … Some of us may have to be dragged kicking and screaming into the 21st century.”

Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson: “Our current constellations are the best in the world … Launching hundreds of cheap satellites 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 … If there’s an entity in the Defense Department that has a foot on the accelerator of acquisition, it’s the Air Force.”

Casual observers were taken aback by the pointed rhetoric. But watchers of the Pentagon’s space reorganization have seen the tension building up for some time as Wilson worked tenaciously but fruitlessly to persuade DoD leaders that the Air Force could change its acquisition practices at the Space and Missile Systems Center, and that a Space Development Agency was unnecessary and redundant.

The battle unfolded quietly behind the scenes starting in early 2018, over the same period when Shanahan and Mike Griffin, the undersecretary of defense for research and engineering, began drawing up plans for the SDA. It was also during that time that Wilson unveiled the Air Force’s own strategy to shake up the status quo, an effort she called SMC 2.0.

Wilson first talked publicly about SMC 2.0 at the 34th Space Symposium a year ago. She described it as a major reorganization aimed at removing layers of reviews from programs and increase partnerships with the private sector, much along the lines of how the SDA plans to do business.

“All of this is intended to both accelerate what we buy, but also to buy things more smartly,” Wilson told reporters in April 2018. The commander of SMC, Lt. Gen. John Thompson, revealed at the time that the rollout of SMC 2.0 came after a four-month-long review. That review would have started in late 2017, when Shanahan was designated by Congress as the principal DoD space adviser, stripping that title from Wilson. The slow pace of acquisitions was one of several beefs against the Air Force that led to the congressional effort to create a separate military branch for space.

Now that the SDA is officially in business, there are lingering questions about the way forward, including who will do what. In a dig at SDA, Wilson commented that the new agency’s first project — a constellation of small satellites in low Earth orbit — is something the Air Force already was doing, the Blackjack LEO demonstration in partnership with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.

Wilson will be stepping down May 31 to become president of the University of Texas El Paso. It remains to be seen whether tensions with DoD over the SDA will simmer down in the coming months. In response to congressional pushback against SDA for threatening to put SMC out of business, Griffin and other DoD officials have been meeting with lawmakers to assure them that everyone is on the same team — despite all appearances to the contrary.


Sandra Erwin

 

Sandra Erwin covers military space for SpaceNews. She is a veteran national security journalist and former editor of National Defense magazine.