Wilson: Air Force staying focused on space mission as reorganization looms

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Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson said she is actively supporting the administration’s efforts to stand up a new service and is helping to “inform options for the president.” But she was insistent that the work to defend the United States in space must go on even as reorganization looms.

WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump will ask Congress next year to approve his plan to create a separate military branch for space. Nobody can predict how this will turn out or when Congress will make a decision. Amid all the talk about reorganization, Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson continues to remind airmen to keep focused on the space mission.

In an interview with SpaceNews on Monday, Wilson said she is actively supporting the administration’s efforts to stand up a new service and is helping to “inform options for the president.” But she was insistent that the work to defend the United States in space must go on even as reorganization looms. “We have to make sure we have the strategy, concepts of operations, people and programs to deter and, if necessary, fight and win in space.”

The Air Force Space Command last year conducted a series of war-games and simulations to gain deeper insight into enemy capabilities and U.S. vulnerabilities. “The analytical work informed our strategic and programmatic choices,” said Wilson. “It was some of the best work that I’ve seen in my time as Secretary of the Air Force.

With detailed analysis and data in hand, Air Force made a compelling case to Congress that more money was needed to defend space assets, and lawmakers responded in fiscal year 2019 by approving Air Force requests to add $7 billion to space programs over the next five years, and reallocate $5 billion from other accounts. The Air Force wants to stay on that course as it heads into next year’s budget cycle, she said. Wilson and Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein last week ordered a 90-day study involving red teams and intelligence experts to inform space budget priorities for fiscal year 2021. This review also will “validate the strategies and programs we have in order to continue to dominate in space.”

Wilson said one the interesting stories about last year’s efforts to increase space funding is “the dog that didn’t bark.” There was no controversy or push-back, she said. The Air Force’s program for “accelerating defendable space wasn’t controversial because we got so many people to engage with us. Congress supported us with not a lot of criticism or discussion.”

“The fact is we were able to build very broad consensus and significant support in the Congress without controversy in the fiscal year 2019 budget,” she said. Air Force leaders in classified briefing “presented what our strategies were, what our concepts of operations were, and the programs that would support those concepts of operations,” she said. There is agreement on the Hill that we need to “shift from a benign to a contested space environment. We got significant support for that shift.”

Wilson also touted procurement reforms the Air Force initiated over the past year to accelerate the development and production of space systems. The Space and Missile Systems Center has restructured nine major programs, called “pace setters,” and collectively taken 19 years off the schedule, she said. The Air Force hired the consulting firm McKinsey to help reorganize SMC. “We flattened the organization,” she said. “I’m pretty impressed so far with what I’m seeing there.”

Wilson believes the Air Force has to keep that momentum going. “What I tell the Air Force and airmen is to set aside the issue of organizational structure and just do the work,” she said. “The work that we are doing is vitally important to the country.”

Wilson on Monday received a SpaceNews Award for Excellence and Innovation in the category of “Government Leader of the Year.” The winners are chosen after an open nomination process and a reader poll.

In a speech at the awards event, Wilson told the audience of space industry executives and government officials: “I find most people don’t know what we do in space, and why it really matters to our economy and our military.”

This video was made possible with support from Intelsat General Corp.

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