Senate Committees Consider U.S. Air Force, OSTP Nominees

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WASHINGTON — The U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee convened Nov. 19 to consider the nomination of Erin Conaton for the No. 2 civilian post within the U.S. Air Force, a position that may or may not come with responsibility for managing the nation’s military satellite programs.

“Previous undersecretaries have also been designated [the Defense Department’s] executive agent for space,” the committee’s chairman, Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), said during the confirmation hearing. “We do not know yet whether Miss Conaton will exercise this responsibility.”

Conaton was nominated Nov. 10 by U.S. President Barack Obama to be the next undersecretary of the Air Force. She is currently the staff director for the House Armed Services Committee and serves as the primary adviser to the committee’s chairman, Rep. Ike Skelton (D-Mo.).

By law, the position of undersecretary of the Air Force is designated the military’s executive agent for space, responsible for coordinating and integrating policies and plans for U.S. military space systems. The undersecretary position has been vacant for nearly two years, and the executive agent for space authority is currently held by Air Force Secretary Michael Donley.

During the confirmation hearing, Conaton said the Air Force and Defense Department are in the process of reviewing where to place responsibility for space systems. In October 2008, John J. Young, then the Pentagon’s acquisition chief, criticized the Defense Department’s decision to give responsibility for space systems to the Air Force.

The Air Force has mismanaged development of its space systems in recent years, and as the systems provide capabilities to all the services, responsibility for spending and programmatic decisions should be made by the Office of the Secretary of Defense, Young told reporters at the time.

Meanwhile, the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee met Nov. 18 to consider the nomination of Philip Coyle to be associate director for national security and international affairs in the administration’s Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP).

Coyle is a senior adviser at the Center for Defense Information and was the Pentagon’s top weapons tester as the director of Operational Test and Evaluation from 1994 to 2001. He was an outspoken critic of the previous administration’s decisions to deploy ballistic missile defense systems before they had been thoroughly tested.

Responding to questions during the hearing, Coyle said in his new role he may be asked scientific or technical questions about missile defense systems but would not have any say in whether or how they would be deployed. He said he supports Obama’s position of fielding missile defenses when they have been proven effective as long as the threat of ballistic missiles persists.

Coyle reiterated his positions from previous congressional hearings that more operationally realistic testing is needed for systems like the Ground-based Midcourse Defense (GMD) system.

“[I would] like to see the GMD system tested at night, which hasn’t been done yet,” Coyle said. “Why is that important? At night when the sun is not shining on a missile coming toward you, it’s harder for infrared sensors to see it. That and testing in conditions such as bad weather are some of the things I thought still needed to be done that could be really crucial in a time of war.”

Coyle also advocated for loosening the restrictions on the export of U.S. technologies.

“None of us want our adversaries to have access to our best technology,” he said. “However, in my experience, American companies need to be able to sell overseas. When they’re able to do that, it brings down the prices for American consumers, and in the case of the Defense Department, it brings down prices for them.”

A Senate vote to confirm Conaton and Coyle had not been scheduled at press time.