Q&A with U.S. Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James

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Profile | Deborah Lee James
Secretary of the U.S. Air Force

Quick Study

During her Senate confirmation hearing two years ago en route to becoming secretary of the Air Force, Deborah Lee James shied away from the most pointed questions related to military space.

The longtime SAIC executive previously worked as a staff member on the House Armed Services Committee, and as such had a deep resume on broad defense matters. But the inner workings of national security space were largely unfamiliar to her.

She has proved to be a quick study, however. Since her confirmation in December 2013, James has taken the lead on several high-profile and controversial military space issues including the certification of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket to launch military satellites and Air Force efforts to develop a new American-made rocket engine. “I like to think I know a lot more now than I did then,” she says.

Deputy Secretary of Defense Robert O. Work agrees, apparently. On Oct. 5, Work designated James as the Pentagon’s principal defense space adviser, a newly created role that subsumes her previous responsibility as executive agent for space. As the PDSA (pronounced “pood-sa”), James is tasked with solving one of the Defense Department’s longstanding space problems: capability integration between the military services.

The job also includes overseeing a planned expenditure of some $5.5 billion over the next five years on unspecified space protection efforts, an investment that some in the space community have described as transformational.

James spoke recently with SpaceNews staff writer Mike Gruss.


What is the difference between your new role as principal defense space adviser and that of executive agent for space?

The idea behind the principal defense space adviser is to take what was good about the executive agent for space but beef it up with additional authority and additional voice at the decision-making table. And an independent voice.

Can you be more specific about the expanded authority?

From here on out, as the principal defense space adviser, I will be responsible for conducting the Space Portfolio Review. That’s an annual look to see do we have our investments and strategies about right, do we need to make adjustments, how do we proceed in the future. I will be at the decision-making table within the interagency process, so that goes beyond the Defense Space Council and includes the key meetings in the White House and with the intelligence community as well. Very, very importantly, it also means I will have an independent voice on space. So whereas the executive agent for space chaired the Defense Space Council and was a coordinator and dutifully represented all of the different views, some of which are not in agreement with one another, in my new role I’ll still represent people’s views, then I’ll lean in and say, “Here’s what I recommend.”

Does this expanded role carry any budget authority?

The budgets will remain with the services, but my job will be to look across all the budgets and make independent recommendations, which, in fact, may even at times be in conflict with the Air Force budget.

You said recently a full-year continuing resolution (CR) could be worse than sequestration. What does that mean for the space portfolio?

A sequestration budget would lop off $10 billion from the Air Force’s top line, which is bad enough. A full-year continuing resolution would lop off $13.4 billion from the Air Force’s top line. These are in comparison to our FY ’16 request. Now if you look at what impacts that could have on space, it could delay our efforts to get off our reliance on the RD-180 Russian engine so that would affect our space launch capability.

Because you are viewing that as a new start?

We believe it would be delayed. The strategy and the execution of the strategy would be delayed. In addition, the number of EELV [Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle] space launches — we need five launches. We would be limited to four if we had a long-term CR. Moreover, we think our Space Fence program would be delayed as would the Space Based Space Surveillance program. It’s a bad deal.

You didn’t mention the $5 billion-plus over the next five years that the Defense Department is seeking as a result of the Space Portfolio Review. Is that enough money to make a difference in combating threats to U.S. space systems?

Coming out of this last strategic review, we did shift about $5 billion to space over the next five years. That’s an outstanding start. This $5 billion will be reviewed annually to see if we think we still have it right and do we need to make additional adjustments. And this $5 billion will allow us to make some very, very important investments — for example, in space situational awareness. It will also allow us to make important investments in space mission assurance. For example, this will be the counter communication system. Then we also need to make investments in command and control improvement. The [Joint Space Operations Center] Mission System will allow us increasingly to, if necessary, fight the conflict that could begin on Earth but perhaps bleed its way into space.

When you say the $5 billion will be reviewed annually, does that mean the number could be higher next year?

It certainly could be.

Does the Air Force have the right organization now for space battle management?

We’re improving that as we speak and it’s a major focus for us going forward. For example, Adm. [Cecil] Haney and U.S. Strategic Command are in the lead for a new joint space tactics and doctrine forum. We have to defend ourselves in new and different ways. Another element on the operational side is the standing up of our JICSpOC, which is the Joint Interagency Combined Space Operations Center. The idea of the JICSpOC is to take those concepts of operations out of that Adm. Haney forum and then to develop tactics, techniques and procedures as well as experiments and work on vignettes. This is designed to ultimately train our people to be able to posture differently in space. It’s not simply managing, in a traffic management sense, the conduct of our satellites, but to be able to, if a conflict bleeds into space, defend ourselves and fight our way through.

Why now? Why didn’t the intelligence community and the Defense Department have this cooperation years ago?

The threats have changed in recent years. It’s been changing gradually over time and there has been renewed, I’ll say focus, in the last couple of years, which has given all of us urgency that we need to do this and we need to do this now. There’s always been information sharing. There’s always been coordination, but perhaps it hasn’t been as agile as we need it to be in the future. Perhaps it hasn’t been as quick as we need it to be in the future.

What case are you making to Congress that United Launch Alliance needs more RD-180 engines to stay competitive until it can get a new rocket with an American-made engine up and flying?

First and foremost what we need is assured access to space. In addition to that, we’d like to have competition in the space launch environment. We also want very much, as a third priority, to get off the reliance on the Russian engine, the RD-180, and we want to do it as quickly as possible. It’s hard to power a satellite into space and it is not something we can do overnight. The technology is simply not there. We need at least two providers for that. We’re trying to do it as part of our four-point plan to get off reliance on the engine and to get us on the path to competition. We need a reasonable transition with some additional engines to get us there. It’s a complex matter.

The National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2016 mandates that money appropriated by Congress to develop a new rocket engine be used for that purpose only, and not for a new rocket. How does the approach the Air Force is taking square with that language?

We’re still reviewing the actual language of the ’16 NDAA but I believe our approach is absolutely consistent and I believe Congress recognizes that an engine alone won’t get us to space. What we need is an engine, which is properly integrated with a rocket. It needs to be tested and certified ultimately to carry what might be a $1 billion payload.

Will the Air Force have to assure a set number of launches to one company to keep two providers in the game?

Time will tell on these matters. For now, we have a request for proposals on the street for the GPS 3 and that will be the first competitive bid. So we’re going to see how we do on that and we’re going to see how we do on the next year or two, and we’ll be constantly assessing those issues you just raised.

You ordered up a review of the Air Force’s process for certifying new entrants in the national security launch market in light of how long it took for SpaceX’s Falcon 9. How much faster do you think the certification process for ULA’s planned Vulcan rocket or the SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket can go?

The top learning, at least for me, was that we were perhaps too early on imposing detailed design reviews upon the new entrant rather than being more open to new ways of doing business. What we have directed for the future is that the certification process for new entrants focus on the confidence-building measures that we need to indicate they are capable for bidding on a launch. They have to demonstrate that by doing a certain number of launches, and new entrants can pick different pathways. But the point is we shouldn’t demand too much of that detailed design review up front because after they compete and if they win there is usually about a two-year period of time where those detailed design reviews can in fact occur.

A little more hands-off?

A little bit more hands-off earlier on, but again, assured access to space is crucial. We cannot sacrifice that.

What’s the single biggest space issue you want to see resolved in the next six to 12 months?

The biggest risk on my mind is the budgetary risk. We have got to come together in Washington and we have got to fund the military programs generally, but space is especially important. We’ve got to fund it correctly and we’ve got to get this done soon and not have a long-term CR and not have a sequestration budget either. These assets are just too important. These matters are complex enough without knowing how much money you’re going to have. No business in America would operate this way.

The White House asked for a new space procurement account in the budgeting process. What are the benefits that come with it?

It provides added visibility to the space budget. It will make it easier to see different elements of the space budget and what might be happening to those elements. Right now that is able to be done but it’s somewhat difficult. It’s contained in different budgetary books, and you have to do a little bit of searching and hunting and pecking.