Pulling It All Together

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Profile: U.S. Air Force Maj. Gen. James Armor
Director, U.S. Department of Defense National Security Space Office

A s a U.S. Air Force major in 1986, James Armor was preparing for a mission to fly into space as an intelligence-payload specialist when the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded in the skies above Florida. That accident led the White House to discontinue launching military satellites aboard space shuttles, thus grounding the trained astronaut before his first flight.

Armor has since plied his trade with both feet planted firmly on the ground, holding such positions as GPS program director, and, most recently, director of signals-intelligence programs at the U.S. National Reconnaissance Office.

In his current job as director of the Pentagon’s National Security Space Office, Armor’s responsibilities range from more closely integrating classified and unclassified space activities to drawing up future military satellite architectures for communications and other purposes.

His top priority at the moment, however, is bringing Ronald Sega, the White House nominee to serve as undersecretary of the Air Force and director of the National Reconnaissance Office, up to speed on the Pentagon’s space portfolio.

Armor, who has been on the job since April, spoke recently with Space News deputy editor Warren Ferster and staff writer Jeremy Singer.

The Air Force has caught a lot of heat from Capitol Hill this year for its space program management. Are the criticisms fair in your view?

We clearly are stumbling on some of the acquisition programs.

From my experience in the space business, I think the reason is the seeds that we planted last decade. We downsized; we didn’t have enough engineering people for oversight; we adopted acquisition reforms and it didn’t work. We’re paying the cost now.

In the space business in particular, if you don’t pay the dollars up front to do the systems engineering and the hard design work — the parts validation, the subsystem integration — it bites you when you try to do your final system-level testing, and that’s what’s happening right now. There is no way to go back and fix that.

Hopefully the space acquisition policy that the Air Force adopted in 2003 will help address these issues so that they do not continue.

My office is working on a space posture review right now as directed by Congress that is looking at the acquisition issues with national security space programs, as well as policy and industrial-base issues.

Is Congress not giving the new space acquisition policy a chance to work?

The programs you see like the Space Based Infrared System and others that have the problems — we are where we are with those. And we just have to take our lumps.

The criticism in most regards is valid, so we continue to communicate with Congress and the American public to say, “the mission is still important, and we hope we don’t make mistakes like this again in the future. Here are the checks and balances we’re putting in place to ensure we don’t.”

What are some of the policy issues that your posture review is looking at?

It’s kind of early. But one of the things on my near-term agenda is President Bush’s forthcoming space policy. It hasn’t been released yet, but we drafted and coordinated the implementation strategy, so we hope it will be out by this fall or before too long.

What about space industrial base issues?

My office recently completed an assessment of the space industrial base. We recently set up a permanent space industrial base council that will start meeting in July, and I’m a member.

I think the space business is not that different than the rest of the Defense Department in this regard: we’re running short on engineers, especially ones that are clearable to do classified work, because a lot of stuff has migrated to other countries. So it makes it complicated — not impossible, but complicated. We haven’t invested a lot of funding in science and technology to stimulate the industry so we’re a little bit behind the power curve on that.

The Government Accountability Office said recently that industry consolidation has narrowed the Pentagon’s space-component supplier base to the point that individual companies can hold entire programs hostage. Do you agree?

That’s absolutely true.

Over the last four years at the National Reconnaissance Office, we’ve had at least two significant individual parts problems that have been really devastating. They’ve really hurt. And we’ve had to delay a program and it costs millions of dollars a month to keep the standing armies.

I would like to minimize those as much as possible. You could spend yourself into an early grave if you try to do it for every part, but we should pick out the critical parts that we don’t want built in another country — the parts that are so important that we don’t [want to] create single point failures for ourselves — and invest in those.

Do the satellite communications architectures your office is developing take into account the possibility that Congress will push the Transformational Satellite program well into the future ?

Yes. It’s pretty flexible. We’re coming out with a new plan called Transformational Communications Architecture 2.0, which will build commercial satellites into the architecture for the first time.

Is commercial bandwidth being used for higher-priority military communications than in the past?

Yes. Commercial bandwidth has become an integral part of military operations. You can’t ignore it anymore. We’ve tried to plan it so that if we lost access to commercial satellites, we could still conduct operations, but we are heavily dependent on them for a lot of different things.

Should the military help satellite operators make their systems more robust?

Yes. There is no commercial incentive to build radiation-hardened parts, [so] I think we will need to step up at the Department of Defense to put some investment in that direction.

Are you developing strategies for protecting U.S. satellites?

We’re coming to the conclusion of our protection strategy. It was pretty thorough; it looks at every aspect of the space system — what’s on orbit, the ground systems, the links, command and control, and the mission segments — and looks for vulnerabilities. I don’t want to publish the vulnerabilities that we discovered, but this applied to both military and intelligence programs.

We had the 2004 National Intelligence Estimate, and compared and contrasted it with the vulnerabilities, and made a priority list of what had to be fixed. I know investments and budgets were changed to fix a lot of those vulnerabilities, but we have more to do. I brought this up during the Quadrennial Defense Review work as well. There are going to be some tough spending decisions, but I think we have a good framework.

How high a priority is space situational awareness?

Space situational awareness is a critical item. We are working on an architecture for space situational awareness that still is being generated, but it’s a vital part of the national security space policy in place today as well as what is in draft form — ensuring space sovereignty for our systems. We don’t know what to do if we don’t know what’s going on in space, and right now, our capabilities are frankly rudimentary. There is stuff going on in space that we don’t know about, and it’s going to take a while before we do.