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HOT TOPIC: Senate to hear from key DoD nominees

On Thursday, the Senate Armed Services Committee will hold a confirmation hearing for a slate of Pentagon nominees. Among them: Michael Griffin, the Trump administration’s pick for undersecretary of defense for research and engineering. A former NASA administrator, Griffin has been tapped to fill a newly created position to oversee Pentagon technology investments and set R&D priorities. He also is likely to play a central role in developing a modernization roadmap for military space programs and could have additional space-related responsibilities added to his portfolio as the Pentagon and the Air Force begin a congressionally mandated reorganization of space activities.

Also up for confirmation is William Roper, nominated to be assistant secretary of the Air Force for acquisition. With a track record of bringing new thinking into defense procurements as head of the Defense Department’s strategic capabilities office, Roper would come into the Air Force job with expectations that he will shake up the status quo across the service’s air and space programs.

Government shutdown watch: 3 days and counting

With no budget deal in sight to avert a Friday government shutdown, a visibly frustrated Mac Thornberry, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee — and a vocal champion of bigger military budgets — called out his congressional colleagues for putting political agendas ahead of national security. There is a chance Congress will pass another continuing resolution, or CR, to keep the government open but that is still bad news for the military, Thornberry told reporters during a Tuesday morning breakfast.

“Damage is done to the military every single day under a CR,” he said. “Doing the right thing for the military should not be tied to any other issue.” The issue in this case is immigration, and the possibility that Democrats will refuse to vote on any funding bill unless it includes language to help young immigrants who were brought to the United States as children gain legal status.

“I’m concerned, and disappointed with members on both sides of the aisle,” said Thornberry. “They’ve acknowledged we need more defense spending but only if we do this, or do that,” he insisted. “And I’m increasingly disturbed that support for our military is being tied to some other agenda. The political games appear to have no end.”

Even if a budget is passed, it is unlikely that the military will get as much money as the defense hawks would like. Meantime, Thornberry lamented, the world “keeps getting more dangerous.”

Coming this week: National Defense Strategy

Thornberry will join other congressional leaders at the Pentagon this week for a breakfast briefing on the forthcoming National Defense Strategy. The unclassified version is expected to be released on Friday. But the looming question is whether there will be funding to execute the strategy, he said. “We have been wanting a strategy that would drive budgets.”

There is a chance that the Pentagon will unveil a blueprint that has no financial backing, a scenario Thornberry would rather not see. What if Congress does not step up and provide the budget to implement and strategy? Then it will be up to the administration to identify what the military can or cannot do, he added. “There has to be consequences for failing to resource our military.”

Having a strategy is “a very good thing,” Thornberry said. “Now the burden is on our shoulders to provide resources.”

Zuma mystery: HASC still waiting to be briefed

The House Armed Services Committee is waiting to be briefed on the space mission codenamed Zuma that has stirred up much controversy over the past week. It appears that the payload failed to reach orbit after it was launched aboard a SpaceX rocket. The Pentagon refused to answer questions. SpaceX, meanwhile, will only say that Falcon 9 performed as expected during the classified mission, an assertion that shifted the public’s focus to payload provider Northrop Grumman, which isn’t talking.

Thornberry said he had no problem with the Pentagon’s stonewalling. “When it comes to national security there must be some things that are classified,” he said. “Otherwise you are telling your adversary what you’re doing.”

Lawmakers are intrigued, however. “We will want to pursue this issue,” said Thornberry. “National security space launch has been a significant issue in the last two NDAAs. … We need to make sure we have assured access to space.”


On tap this week: SBIRS launch

The U.S. military’s newest missile-warning satellite is set to lift off later this week just as tensions continue to mount over North Korea’s ICBM program. Crews at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida, are preparing to launch the SBIRS GEO Flight-4 satellite on Thursday from a United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket. The forecast shows an 80 percent chance of favorable weather conditions for the planned 7:52PM EST liftoff on Thursday. Air Force officials, meanwhile, are talking to potential vendors this week about plans to modernize the SBIRS’ ground architecture. The goal is to shift the current ground software architecture — a proprietary system developed by traditional defense contractors that is not compatible with commercial software from competing vendors — to an open-systems platform that the Air Force would own and update with new technology as it becomes available. The project is called “future operationally resilient ground evolution,” or FORGE. It is one of several projects where the Air Force hopes to attract non-traditional vendors. The “space enterprise consortium,” overseen by the Space and Missile Systems Center in Los Angeles, is hosting a conference this week in El Segundo, California. Interest in the FORGE program has been so strong that the consortium had to close registration for one-on-one meetings.

China rising as a space power

During a hearing of the House Armed Services emerging threats and capabilities subcommittee last week, analysts said the United States could soon be unpleasantly surprised as China continues to shore up its domestic capacity to produce high-end weapons, satellites and encryption technologies. Thornberry did not attend the hearing but was not surprised by these conclusions. “In many ways we are not prepared for what China is doing,” he told reporters Tuesday. “What we see in China is a combination of economic and military efforts combined into a long-term strategy that may be very successful for them. China notably has built up a significant satellite manufacturing industry, and has managed to develop quantum communications spacecraft with advanced encryption features. “China’s satellite manufacturing industry is growing at an alarming rate,” said Rep. Doug Lamborn (R-Colo.). “In the past two years Chinese factories have pumped out 40 satellites.”

Islamic State viewed from space

Satellite imagery and other space data provided RAND researchers an unprecedented look at life inside the Islamic State, according to a new report. What these images revealed mostly was “economic destruction.” In city after city, “the arrival of the Islamic State meant a plunge into darkness.” By the time Ramadi fell in mid-2015, the Islamic State controlled an area of Iraq and Syria approaching the size of Great Britain. Its advance had been ruthless. RAND researchers wanted to know: What happened to cities and local economies when the Islamic State tried to govern? Satellite observations provides some answers. Analysts have used satellite data to measure poverty in Kenya and black markets in North Koreas. The same kind of satellite analysis, RAND researchers realized, could provide a remarkably detailed look inside one of the most dangerous places in the world. The researchers collected data on more than 150 cities in Iraq and Syria, month by month. They estimated that as much as a third of the population had fled areas under ISIS control. Factories closed; fields dried up. In Syria, more than 60 percent of the lights went out as ISIS struggled to restore electricity or fuel generators. In Iraq, it was more like 80 percent.

DepSecDef, Japanese minister talk space

U.S. Deputy Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan and Japan’s minister of state for space policy, Masaji Matsuyama, met Friday to discuss space cooperation in that domain as they prepare for contingencies. Pentagon spokesman Capt. Jeff Davis said in a statement that Shanahan and Matsuyama spoke about how space fits into the current security situation in the Asia-Pacific region and how the two countries can increase cooperative efforts in areas such as satellite communications, hosted payloads and Japanese participation in U.S. space war gaming. “The two leaders agreed to continue efforts to strengthen the U.S.-Japan alliance by integrating space into our political and military discussions at all levels.”

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...