The reorganization that Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has been imposing on the Defense Department may have its virtues, but they are not apparent when it comes to Air Force Space operations.
While the Obama administration has been signaling that it intends to cut the Air Force budget, and some Generals see this change as a way to better integrate the space side of the organization back into the Air Force as a whole, other experts speculate that the worst cuts will fall on the space sector. Taking control of the acquisition process away from the space professionals will facilitate crippling the space sector, which, if Chinese military preparations are any guide, could well be the next theater of war. These cuts in the acquisition role of the Air Force's space experts will prevent them from complaining too loudly about the cuts: they will lack access to the decision making process.
Control over space-systems acquisition is being taken away from the space professionals and handed over to the Air Force's regular acquisition corps. While no one can doubt the competence of these experts to design and build top-of-the-line fighter and transport aircraft ,and, one hopes, bombers, they know little about the extremely unforgiving nature of the space environment. Outer space is as alien to those who have devoted their careers to the inside-the-atmosphere operating domain as the undersea environment is to an expert on desert warfare.
America's space assets are essential to the nation's overall military power. Others have recognized this and see it as a vulnerability to be exploited. Unless the senior leaders in both the Air Force and the Defense Department are allowed by the administration to focus clearly on this danger, it will only grow. China's 2007 ASAT test was a sign that its military imagines that the future of warfare is going to include destructive operations in space. Recently, China has been detected practicing what appear to be automated orbital maneuvers, which could be in preparation for future civilian activities or have military implications, or both. China is just one of many nations seeking ways to use space for their own military purposes and to ensure that space systems will not be used against them. It is almost certain that in any future crisis or conflict involving powers with space capabilities, an effort will be made to negate, degrade or destroy the systems.
It has been almost ten years since the regular Air Force acquisition experts have had anything to do with space systems. They will have a few advisors from the Air Force space team, but these professionals will be strangers at the table. They will lack the clout to force the top people within the acquisition organization to pay careful attention to space. Over the next two years or so, this may not have any ill effects; but beyond 2012 or 2013, things could get much worse.
While the appointment of a Deputy Undersecretary of the Air Force for Space is welcome, the authority that will go along with this post is negligible. That person will be responsible for "space policy, issue integration and strategy," but as this office will lack the power to decide which, and how many, space systems to buy, its ability to make consequential decisions is questionable.
Between now and 2015, several vital and very expensive space programs will enter into their decisive development and deployment phase. The first of these is the Space Base Infrared System (SBIRS), a series of heat sensing, early-warning satellites whose job it is to detect missile launches anywhere in the world, and to alert US forces. They are the direct successor to the Cold War era Defense Support Program (DSP) satellites, which were designed originally to warn of a large scale Soviet nuclear attack. They provide essential cueing for missile defense systems, amd they once were designed to give the president warning that a major nuclear attack was on the way.
Unrealistic performance requirements, which, for example, imagined that one version of these satellites would detect individual artillery pieces, drove up the costs. Constantly changing management personnel and unrealistic budget estimates nearly crippled SBIRS. Fortunately, a few unsung heroes, and the fact that replacing the DSPs was, and is, a supremely important national priority, saved the program from cancellation. A pair of SBIRS sensors riding as auxiliary payloads on top secret spy satellites are now in orbit, and, according to reports, are working well. The first of the dedicated SBIRS spacecraft is now planned to launch sometime early next year.
In this critical task, there is a danger that the reorganization that has been ordered will distract too many of the Air Force's top professionals from their supervisory role over SBIRS. If anything goes wrong, the damage to the national interest, and the inevitable finger pointing, will be a major disaster for the Defense Department.
Meanwhile, the Air Force will soon have to decide what kind of follow on system it wants to the pair of successful Space Tracking and Surveillance (STSS) experimental satellites launched last year. This program is designed to give America's Missile Defense forces the ability to track enemy missiles from Low Earth Orbit (LEO). Integrating this data with that from large radars and other sensors will radically improve the accuracy of all US missile defense systems. This is yet another tough decision with which the reformed Air Force space organization will have to grapple.
One disturbing sign is that the purchase of the second Space Based Surveillance Satellite (SBSS) has been postponed. The first one, designed to track space debris and give the US government an important new space situational awareness ability, was launched on September 25th from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. The delay seems to be a sign that funding for space systems is so tight, that even essential systems are under stress. This applies to the SBSS which fits exactly with the priorities laid out by the President in his June 2010 National Space Policy, which aim to "Strengthen Stability in Space" and order the Secretary of Defense to "Be responsible, with support from the Director of National Intelligence for the development and modernization of space situational awareness capabilities."
Another essential military space program is GPS 3, the new and improved series of navigation satellites. By itself, GPS has done more to improve the lives of ordinary people all over the world than any other bit of space hardware, except perhaps weather satellites. Not even communications satellites have done more to prevent accidents, save lives, help prevent famines, reduce pollution and make war less destructive. The new of GPS spacecraft will provide better accuracy, better reliability and greater flexibility than the ones now in orbit. If the Air Force leaders get this wrong, it will be hard for the US ever to recover its place as the undisputed global leader in space based Positioning, Navigation and Timing technology.
When a US administration tries to reorganize the military , or a major portion of it, it usually fails to achieve any real increase in efficiency or savings. These failure were all too apparent in the early 1960s, when Robert MacNamara and his whiz-kids reordered the entire Defense Department along what they thought were more rational lines. Thery discovered, in Washington, Vietnam and elsewhere, that neither America's enemies nor its people respond well to bloodless, uninspired management techniques.
In a different way, then-Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney failed when his successor, Les Aspin and former whiz-kid, threw out the "Base Force" concept -- the minimum size military needed to meet the challenges of a world with no USSR. It was to consist of 12 US Army Divisions, 12 Aircraft Carrier Battle Groups and 20 US Air Force Fighter and Bomber Wings, all of which Cheney and Colin Powell had carefully crafted to deal with the post-Cold War environment.
The only recent example of a successful major American military reform was the one carried out by George Marshall in March 1942: At the time of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor the Army Chief of Staff there were more than 60 officers with direct access to his office; and the Army command structure was filled with major and minor organizations all of which demanded his direct supervision - a state of affairs more than any one man could reasonably be expected to handle. Marshall took the direct approach, with prefect timing and a keen sense of what was, and was not, politically possible, he abolished many of the old positions such as the heads of the Infantry, Cavalry, Field Artillery and Coast Artillery and replaced them with a new structure consisting of the Army Ground Forces, the Army Air Forces and the Services of Supply. At a stroke, he simplified both the way the Army ran itself and had given himself the ability to concentrate on his most important job: being the President's principal military advisor.
Most importantly, in setting up the Army Air Forces he did not allow the procurement of aircraft and related systems to be controlled by the new Services of Supply. Instead, this was vested in the Army Air Forces itself. Marshall may have figured that the air commanders were the only ones truly qualified to determine their needs, and to judge what industry was capable of delivering.
While the President's National Space Policy principal that "It is in the shared interest of all nations to act responsibly in space to help prevent mishaps, misperceptions and mistrust" might fit nicely in a speech to the UN; sadly, since 2001, when Donald Rumsfeld warned of a "Space Pearl Harbor," little has been done to forestall the possibility of a "Space Peal Harbor.". If the Air Force's space mission is once again put on that organization's back burner, the result could be catastrophic.