Congress smartly moves forward on American national defense in space

If nothing else, the debate and discussion around the proposed Space Force highlighted the criticality and importance of space to both the national security and economic security of the United States. It appears that, unless something significant changes between now and the floor vote early this week on the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), Congress will push off a decision on the Space Force.

This is not to say Congress is not doing anything to enhance or strengthen our position in space. The NDAA takes several smart steps to address the reasons behind the proposed Space Force. Chief among these is section 1607 of the legislation, which directs the defense secretary to establish a “space warfighting policy” that identifies joint mission essential tasks, identifies additional authorities for the employment of forces, meets readiness requirements for space warfighting, and considers allied and partner contributions in the defense of space assets and capabilities.

{mosads}This is a natural next step toward truly treating space as a warfighting domain. Shortly after becoming Air Force secretary in 2017, Heather Wilson joined Air Force chief of staff David Goldfein and Air Force space commander John Raymond in saying, “Clearly, freedom to operate in space is not guaranteed. In fact, space is now a warfighting domain, similar to the more familiar air, land, and maritime domains our men and women are fighting in today.”

Hitherto, the United States enjoyed unquestioned access to and dominance of space, but this is no longer the case. China and Russia are rapidly expanding their counterspace capabilities. Recognizing that Washington relies on space for military dominance, Beijing and Moscow are working to develop their own space capabilities while, at the same time, countering the strengths of the United States.

While America’s adversaries have advanced, America itself has stagnated in space, continuing to treat it largely as an uncontested domain. This is particularly reflected in the approach to acquisitions. The Air Force is not, in the words of its strategic commander John Hyten, going fast. The acquisitions process is fundamentally broken, as the same requirements for the same systems lead to the same capabilities. It is as if the world embraced the iPhone, but the Air Force is holding on to its flip phone, which is perfectly functional, but missing the app revolution.

Here Congress is tasking the Air Force with moving into the iPhone generation, at least tentatively. The NDAA outlines modifications to the Space Rapid Capabilities Office, which is itself tasked with going fast in space acquisition by pursuing “low cost, rapid reaction payloads, busses, launch, and launch control capabilities to fulfill joint military operational requirements for on-demand space support and reconstitution.” The challenge here is in making the Space Rapid Capabilities Office have a real impact and not just become another office in the wilderness.

However, this will not affect the traditional acquisition process of the Space and Missile Systems Center, which is the lead Air Force organization tasked with space procurement. Until this broader process changes, the Air Force risks continuing at the same speed, getting the same equipment, and missing many new commercial capabilities and opportunities that are online and coming online in near future.

Another aspect of the legislation that is critical is the inclusion of “rapid, responsive, and reliable space launches for national security.” Again, until recently, the Air Force sought reliability exclusively. Launch was neither rapid nor responsive. This was partially due to the paucity of launch providers. Only United Launch Alliance could put national security payloads into orbit until recently. Today, SpaceX is a second provider on the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle program. Blue Origin, Virgin Orbit, and others aim to add additional capabilities to the portfolio.

The smart language on reusability also looks set to survive and become law. Under the conference version of the NDAA, the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle program becomes the National Security Space Launch Program. The NDAA also directs the defense secretary to pursue a strategy that includes reusable rockets in national security launches, mandates the continuation of certification processes to validate the use of these components, and requires justification for why a national security launch contract awards excludes reusable rockets.

One of the arguments that many proponents of the Space Force advanced is the need for a career track for space professionals. A key reference point is the absence of officers on the space track on the recent general officer promotion list. Here the NDAA directs the Air Force secretary establish a plan to increase and improve the number and quantity of space professionals. This will, hopefully, provide a better career path for space officers well before the establishment of the Space Force.

Regardless of the outcome of the Space Force debate, Congress looks set to make some smart moves in national security in space. It is critical that the Air Force seize upon the interest from Congress and truly “go fast” in space. Failing to do so means America will cede the highest ground.

Joshua Huminski is director of the National Security Space Program and director of the Mike Rogers Center for Intelligence and Global Affairs at the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress in Washington, D.C.

Tags Congress Government Mike Rogers National security Space United States

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