Drifting in Space

Jan. 1, 2010

“The Secretary of the Air Force is hereby designated as the DOD executive agent for space and in that role shall … exercise DOD-wide responsibilities for planning and programming of space systems and acquisition.”—Department of Defense Directive 5101.2, June 3, 2003

With those words, then-Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld conferred upon the Air Force responsibility for military space programs defensewide. He acted to ensure that there was unity and clarity of effort in space.

It did not last long. In 2005, during a leadership vacuum in USAF, the Office of the Secretary of Defense “temporarily” withdrew this executive agent status from the service and began exercising the authority itself.

Nearly five years later, OSD officials still cling to this control. However, the excuses for not permanently resolving the matter of who controls military space had, by early 2010, just about run out.

The Air Force was originally chosen to lead these programs because of its overwhelming dominance of the field of military space. USAF runs the vast majority of orbital programs, provides a preponderance of the personnel in military space missions, has a four-star major command dedicated to space, and supplies the most uniformed personnel for space agencies such as the National Reconnaissance Office.

It was the Air Force undersecretary who actually performed the duties of executive agent for space. Undersecretaries Ronald M. Sega and Peter B. Teets were space experts, and Teets also served as director of the NRO.

This arrangement fell apart in 2005. In January of that year, Secretary of the Air Force James G. Roche stepped down, but his successor, Michael W. Wynne, was not in place until November. Worse, Teets retired in March, and the Bush Administration simply never got around to naming a successor. (The Obama Administration finally did so in November, nominating Erin C. Conaton for the post.)

Thus, for nearly a year, the service was left with no Secretary, undersecretary, or acquisition leader. It was then that OSD, in a classic bureaucratic power grab, seized control of 21 major service acquisition programs, 11 of which were space programs. OSD had, in effect, wrested away the space executive agency.

Air Force leaders are united in their desire to regain control of space, but have been extraordinarily polite in their requests.

There is no reason to give up on the notion of being executive agent for space, said Gen. Norton A. Schwartz, Chief of Staff.

Space is primarily an Air Force responsibility, said Gen. C. Robert Kehler, head of Air Force Space Command, who added the service is “positioned to be the organization of choice” for executive agency.

The Air Force “should be taking steps internally to raise confidence in its ability to manage space programs and carry out its responsibilities,” said Michael B. Donley, the current SECAF, so that authority “would be returned … at the earliest opportunity.”

These requests fell on deaf ears. Clearly, OSD did not want to hear them, and critics of the Air Force’s role in space have been much more vocal than USAF’s advocates. One of them, now-departed DOD acquisition chief John J. Young Jr., said in 2008: “I fundamentally disagree that a single service should have the total acquisition decision authority … for a set of programs as was done in space.”

Young favored a joint office within OSD to oversee military space, and said he “would have never” given the job to USAF’s No. 2 civilian because “the Air Force undersecretary is the Air Force undersecretary.”

On that last point, Young and Donley seemed to agree. Conaton, formerly staff director of the House Armed Services Committee, was chosen for management acumen. Her confirmation “will prompt a review of how we organize for the management and oversight of space acquisition, executive agent, and other activities in the Air Force headquarters,” said Donley in November. The service was “drafting terms of reference for such a review in the months ahead.”

The positions of undersecretary and NRO director have been permanently decoupled. The NRO director’s position has not stayed vacant, and retired Air Force Gen. Bruce Carlson is the current director.

Agencies such as the NRO, CIA, and National Security Agency all have significant influence on military space programs that are nominally Air Force responsibilities. “Everyone in the government uses Air Force space assets, and many desire (and receive) a say in system design and operations,” noted Thomas P. Ehrhard, special assistant to Schwartz, in a paper he wrote while at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank.

These numerous stakeholders contribute to specification changes, “gold plating” of requirements, and budget and schedule problems. Though they often originate elsewhere, these problems inevitably fall on the Air Force.

A new review may provide some guidance. “I’m hopeful that results from the Space Posture Review illuminate the path forward on DOD and interagency governance for space,” Donley said. That hasn’t happened yet, but when the key positions are filled and the Space Posture Review is done, the time will have come for DOD to permanently decide the issue. Stay tuned.

More information: http://www.dtic.mil/whs/directives/corres/html/510102.htm