Secretary Wilson Mostly Mum on Proposed Air Force Space Program Reorganization

By Stew Magnuson
Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson speaks at the 2017 Air Force Global Strike Command Innovation and Technology Symposium Nov. 15.

Photo: Air Force

SHREVEPORT, La. — Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson lauded a proposed boost in the budget for space programs, but had little to say when asked about language in the fiscal year 2018 National Defense Authorization Act that calls for the service to give up some of its power over space programs.

The Senate and House reconciled their two versions of the NDAA Nov. 14, which is expected to pass through Congress on its way to the president for signing. It calls for reorganizing space system acquisitions and shifting authorities to leaders that may come from outside the Air Force. Among its many provisions is one that will bar the Air Force secretary from being the principal Defense Department space advisor, or as being in charge of a new space acquisitions office, as was first reported by Breaking Defense.

A Nov. 8 bipartisan statement from the chair and ranking member of the House Armed Services strategic forces subcommittee expressed why Congress has asked for changes.

“No single official could be held accountable for the success or the failure of the space enterprise. Too many bureaucrats are empowered to say ‘no’ when it comes to defending our assets in space and too few are empowered to say ‘yes,’” Reps. Mike Rogers, R-Ala., and Jim Copper, D-Tenn., said in a statement. The Defense Department and the Air Force had not taken the necessary steps to ensure the protection of space systems as the domain has become increasingly threatened by adversaries, they said. Lawmakers had plans to create a "space corps," but after strong opposition from the Defense Department, that language was dropped from the NDAA.

When asked at a press conference Nov. 15 if the NDAA serves as a rebuke to the Air Force for the way it is handling space system acquisitions, Wilson mostly sidestepped the issue, only noting that she has spent about one-third of her time handling space-related matters.

“The most important thing for Air Force space forces is to lift the sequester,” she said, referring to the Budget Control Act of 2011, which will mandate spending caps across the Defense Department unless Congress acts to change them. Lifting the caps would “adequately fund space,” she added. That is crucial as it is now seen as a contested domain, she said.

The Trump administration requested a 20 percent increase in Air Force spending on space, which will help the service defend space systems, she noted.

“Space is going to be a contested domain in any high-end fight and we need to be able to defend what we have on orbit, to be able to take a punch and fight through it. And there are significant changes in strategy going on there,” she said. The Air Force is currently undergoing a review of its entire space enterprise, she added. The service has created a $100 million fund to do rapid prototyping and speed up the fielding of new technologies, she noted. 

As far as acquisition, Wilson said: “I think we are in vicious agreement with the United States Congress that we need to get capability faster from the lab bench to the warfighter. ... I think we are moving in exactly the same direction [as Congress] and we're going to keep going."

Speaking earlier at the Air Force Global Strike Command Innovation and Technology Symposium sponsored by the National Defense Industrial Association, Wilson lauded provisions in the NDAA that would give service members a 2.4 percent boost in pay and allow the Air Force to add 4,100 personnel. These additional airmen would begin to address the losses the service suffered during the last round of draconian budget cuts. One thousand of them will be placed in squadrons to boost the numbers lost in the previous sequester, she said at the event in Shreveport, Louisiana.

“The United States Congress is beginning to understand that we need to restore our nation’s defense,” she said. The $700 billion topline budget authorized in the legislation is significantly more than what the Trump administration proposed, she noted.

The budget will also allow the Air Force to expand pilot training and help retain those still in the service. The service is currently short 2,000 pilots and the problem is particularly acute for those flying jet fighters, she said.

Meanwhile, Wilson warned of the effects of a continuing resolution if Congress does not pass a budget by Dec. 8. That, coupled with the possibility of deep budget cuts if sequestration remains the law of the land, could “break the Air Force,” she said. The service will be stretched too thin to carry out its required missions, she added.

“It is time to take this off of cruise control and let the Congress drive the budget,” she said.


Topics: Acquisition, Air Force News, Space

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