Defense Secretary Jim Mattis at U.S. Northern Command headquarters in Colorado Springs, Colorado. Credit: DoD

“On National Security” appears in every issue of SpaceNews magazine. This column ran in the June 4, 2018 issue.

It could be a few more years before a resolution is reached on whether the U.S. military should have a separate Space Force.

Lawmakers on Capitol Hill, meanwhile, are not letting up on efforts to keep the Air Force and the Pentagon focused on space issues.

Defense Secretary Jim Mattis at U.S. Northern Command headquarters in Colorado Springs, Colorado. Credit: DoD
Defense Secretary Jim Mattis at U.S. Northern Command headquarters in Colorado Springs, Colorado. Credit: DoD

“Space has become so critical that I know we’re going to get more on that,” Defense Secretary Jim Mattis told reporters May 23 in Colorado Springs after delivering the commencement speech at the U.S. Air Force Academy.

Mattis was asked to comment on a persistent push by Congress to change how the military is organized and equipped for future operations in space as rival nations come up with ways to deny the United States the dominance is had has to date. The Pentagon is not being passive about this. Mattis said a study to figure out a future organization is moving forward. “There’s some congressmen that are very involved in this.”

Creating a Space Force is the more radical of the proposals that have been debated on Capitol Hill and endorsed by President Trump. Other reforms include creating a new sub-unified Space Command under U.S. Strategic Command and speeding up the procurement of next-generation satellites and launch vehicles.

The Trump administration in its national defense strategy declared space a “warfighting domain” and added $7 billion to the Pentagon’s budget over the next five years for training, personnel and technologies associated with space operations. Congress however remains dissatisfied by the slow pace of modernization. Mattis acknowledged the criticism but noted that the Pentagon’s troubled procurement system is an issue that affects more than just space programs. “The acquisition system keeps coming up as an emblem of why the Army has had problems with its modernization, of why space has had problems. … After a while, even I can figure out we’ve got a problem in acquisition.”

Air Force leaders have been beating the drum for months on their latest initiatives to rev up innovation. They offer as exhibits A and B the space industry consortium and the Space Rapid Capabilities Office.

“It’s been useful,” Gen. John “Jay” Raymond, commander of Air Force Space Command, said of the consortium of 153 companies that compete for contracts to rapidly develop and prototype new systems.

The consortium is just getting off the ground but so far things look promising, Raymond told an Air Force Association meeting May 24. The Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center in November was given $100 million to establish the consortium and start funding projects. Companies pay from $500 to $7,500 in monthly dues and bid on upcoming opportunities. Raymond said this arrangement helps the military attract nontraditional competitors. The goal is to move from solicitation to contract award in three months, which is extraordinarily fast compared to conventional DoD contracting.

Raymond announced that funding for consortium-led projects was recently upped to $500 million. Already underway is a program to develop microsatellites that can be deployed in geostationary orbits some 36,000 kilometers above the equator. Another is the development of a new constellation of missile-warning satellites. More solicitations have been posted.

The new rapid capabilities office, known as the Space RCO, is still being formed. It was initially billed as the replacement to the now defunct Operationally Responsive Space Office. Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson cautioned that this is more than just a name change. “We want to change the way in which the new space rapid capabilities office does its work,” she told the Senate Appropriations Committee during a hearing.

The Space RCO will have about 50 people to start. Wilson said a director soon should be named, someone who will be a “good fit for an organization that’s very high performing and that connects with what’s going on in commercial industry.” The Space RCO is being modeled after the Air Force office that spearheaded the development of critical programs such as the next-generation stealth bomber.

“It’s a small office and it reports directly to the Secretary,” Wilson said. “It moves very quickly and under very senior authorities.”

Congressional committees will be watching these new ventures closely and expecting results relatively soon. The new defense policy bill for fiscal year 2019 is going through the legislative process. The House and Senate are on track to start conference negotiations this fall, and how the military is positioned and organized to fight in space will be a focal point of their deliberations.

Sandra Erwin

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

Sandra Erwin writes about military space programs, policy, technology and the industry that supports this sector. She has covered the military, the Pentagon, Congress and the defense industry for nearly two decades as editor of NDIA’s National Defense...