The U.S. Air Force plans to launch a new office Aug. 1 to further “integrate, normalize and elevate” its space operations, the service announced June 16.

Located at Air Force headquarters in the Pentagon, the office, or directorate, will consolidate space functions from multiple parts of the Air Staff and will be the service’s leading advocate for space operations and requirements.

Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson (Air Force photo)
Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson (Air Force photo)

The directorate, or A-11, will be led by a deputy chief of staff for space operations, a three-star general who will be appointed to that position “within the next couple weeks,” Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson said at Capitol Hill space forum sponsored by the Air Force Association and FiscalTrak.

The announcement follows criticism from lawmakers and the Government Accountability Office (GAO) that the Department of Defense’s space efforts are plagued by fragmented leadership. The fiscal year 2017 defense authorization act calls for DoD to give Congress recommendations by June 23 on how to strengthen its management of space activities.

Rep. Doug Lamborn (R-Colo.), a member of the House Armed Services Committee (HASC), called the new directorate a “step in the right direction.” But he told Defense Daily that he “would prefer to go further.”

Lamborn plans to discuss the way ahead with his colleagues. The GAO has suggested that Congress consider forming a military department or agency for space or combining Air Force and National Reconnaissance Office space acquisition functions into a space acquisition agency. Creating a space force “is one of the options, certainly, but there are other bold options as well,” Lamborn said.

With the Air Force wary of a major space reorganization, which could be “disruptive” and “ruffle a lot of feathers,” Todd Harrison, director of defense and budget analysis at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, suggested that Congress may need to set up an independent commission to study the issue and forge a consensus on changes.

“Personally, I’m not sure that we’re ready for a solution just yet,” he said. “There’s more work that needs to be done, more thought that needs to be put into this.”

The directorate announcement was not a surprise, as Gen. John Raymond, head of Air Force Space Command, indicated in April that such an entity was in the works (Defense Daily, April 6, 2017).

The new directorate, which will initially have a staff of about 10 people, will be separate from the one that supports Wilson in her role as principal space adviser to Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, Wilson said. Deputy Defense Secretary Robert Work signed a directive June 9 to continue the Air Force secretary’s adviser status for another year.

In her remarks, Wilson noted that the FY 2018 budget request calls for the creation of an integrated command center for space. Companies competing to build satellites will be expected to tie their offerings into the center.

“In a very fast-moving, dynamic environment, we need to be able to have integrated command and control and not 12 or 13 independent systems with different people operating them,” Wilson said. “If you’re going to propose a space system in the future and it doesn’t integrate into the integrated command center, which will be an open architecture, you’re not going to win the bid.”

Also during the forum, Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-Okla.), a HASC member, said the panel plans to include about $30 million in the FY 2018 defense authorization bill to promote the military’s use of small-satellite launchers developed by commercial firms, such as Rocket Lab and Virgin Galactic. Lawmakers believe that such a “responsive launch” capability will allow the military to rapidly reconstitute its space assets if they are attacked.

“Commercial, in many cases these days, moves far faster than the federal government, and we need to be prepared to take advantage of that,” Bridenstine said.