BOSTON — Space programs might fare better in the Pentagon’s annual budget request if the military had taken the advice of an expert commission and established a special account for satellite and rocket work, according to some space advocates.
U.S. Sen. John Kyl (R-Ariz.), the ranking minority member of the Senate Judiciary terrorism, technology and homeland security subcommittee, and chairman of the Senate Republican Conference, says establishing what is called a Major Force Program (MFP) for space spending would help bolster spending on efforts like protecting U.S. satellites in the wake of the Chinese anti-satellite demonstration that took place in January.
“This is going to require more than a budget request because there’s always a shortage of money and it is ideal to borrow from Peter to pay Paul,” Kyl said during a March 8 speech at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington-based think tank. Kyl was referring to a perception amongst space advocates that the Air Force frequently takes money that had previously been planned for space systems as it assembles its budget requests, and uses that money to pay for aircraft programs.
The concept of an MFP for space spending was recommended in the “Report of the Commission to Assess U.S. National Security Space Management and Organization,” which was published in January 2001 by a panel led by Donald Rumsfeld.
“A Major Force Program for Space would provide insight into the management of space programs without unnecessarily restricting the flexibility of the Secretary of Defense, the Director of Central Intelligence or the military departments,” the report concluded.
The Rumsfeld Commission, as it was known, cited U.S. special operations in the report as one area where an MFP has been helpful. The Pentagon established an MFP for special operations spending in 1986 following an investigation into the military’s failure to rescue hostages in Iran.
An MFP is used to bundle all funding for a particular purpose into a single account in the Pentagon budget. In addition to bringing together the funding to enable better oversight and advocasy for the purpose, money placed into an MFP is protected from being diverted to pay for needs outside that mission. That MFP has been successful in protecting money for special operations, according to Howell Estes, a retired Air Force general who served on the Rumsfeld commission. Prior to establishing the MFP, funding for special operations needs was often diverted to other programs as the Pentagon formulated its annual budget requests, said Estes, a former commander of Air Force Space Command.
However, Rumsfeld did not elect to implement all of the recommendations of his commission once he took over as secretary of defense. Instead of establishing an MFP for space, the Pentagon created a “virtual MFP” that tracks money spent on space programs, according to a written response to questions provided by Maj. Regina Winchester, an Air Force spokeswoman.
“Creating a formal MFP for space would simplify somewhat the ability to track space resources over a virtual MFP,” Winchester said. “There has been discussion on whether or not a change is warranted, but no decision has been made to make such a change.”
Estes said it is difficult to quantify the effect of not having a real MFP for space. The need for senior Pentagon leaders to focus on fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan has taken away from attention that otherwise might have gone to space in the wake of the commission’s report, he said.
Having a virtual MFP is at least a step in the right direction, as it makes it easier to follow the spending on space, Estes said.
However, he and other advocates for a formal MFP say that simply tracking the money is not sufficient. Tracking the funds does not offer the same protection as the firewall that comes with an MFP, which prevents funding for the space mission from being diverted to pay for other Air Force priorities, Kyl said.
Despite the recommendation to create an MFP for space, the Rumsfeld Commission staff noted in a background paper that accompanied their report that doing so could have a downside. One potential problem associated with an MFP for space is that it would be difficult to draw from funding for non-space programs to add to space efforts if desired, according to the paper.
Defense Department officials have often used this argument as justification for not establishing an MFP for space in the years following the commission’s recommendations, according to a Pentagon source. However, that source could not recall any examples where money from other areas was incorporated into the space budget.