Q&A: U.S. Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson says change is underway, Space Force or not

Space

This article originally appeared in the Dec. 17, 2018 issue of SpaceNews magazine.

Whether Congress goes along with President Donald Trump’s plan to establish a Space Force, the nation is prepared to protect and advance its dominance in space, Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson said in a Dec. 3 interview. The winner of SpaceNews’ 2018 military space Government Leader of the Year award, Wilson is piloting the Air Force into the new year amid great uncertainty about how the service’s space forces might be reorganized under a separate branch. She is insistent that the Air Force is keeping focused on the space mission while supporting the Trump administration’s proposal — to be submitted to Congress in the coming weeks — to stand up a new military branch for space in fiscal year 2020. A central effort is what Wilson calls “defendable space,” a broad term that describes programs and tactics to protect U.S. satellites from enemy attacks.

How is the Air Force dealing with a possible transition to a Space Force?

With respect to organization, I’m 100 percent aligned with the president. I believe that the president will put forward a proposal in conjunction with the fiscal year 2020 budget on where he wants to go. My responsibility as the secretary of the Air Force is not just to inform the options for him and that proposal, but to make sure we have the strategies, concepts of operations and programs to deter, and, if necessary, fight and win in space.

How are you preparing the Air Force to tackle space security challenges?

We are being threatened in ways we never were before. So we’re facing this forthrightly; we are developing strategies and concepts and implementing them. We are not just putting programs in place, we are accelerating them significantly. The Air Force Space Command last year conducted a series of wargames and simulations that looked at the threats we might face in 2025 or 2030, and how we might counter those threats. The analytical work informed our strategic and programmatic choices. It was some of the best work that I’ve seen in my 18 months as secretary of the Air Force. I have seen some really good pieces of work, but this was among the best. The analytical work, the simulation and analysis, and wargaming we did to inform our budget proposal was supported overwhelmingly. We presented it in a way that got a lot of kudos within the Pentagon and on Capitol Hill. Our challenge was to make space understandable. The team put the analysis together with graphics to make it real, and to explain why it mattered.

“The dog that didn’t bark in the fiscal year 2019 budget was space.” -- U.S. Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson. Credit: Lisa Nipp for SpaceNews
“The dog that didn’t bark in the fiscal year 2019 budget was space.” — U.S. Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson. Credit: Lisa Nipp for SpaceNews

In the ongoing debate on the reorganization of military space, what has been missing in the conversation?

The dog that didn’t bark in the fiscal year 2019 budget was space. The fact is that we were able to build very broad consensus and significant support in the Congress without controversy. In the fiscal year 2019 budget, we shifted $5 billion internally and added $7 billion on top of that to accelerate defendable space. It wasn’t controversial because of the way we presented what our strategies were, what our concepts of operations were, and the programs that would support those concepts of operations. For obvious reasons [of classification] that was done privately. We are shifting from a benign to a contested environment. We got significant support for that shift, and it was included in the budget.

Anything else the Air Force is doing that you believe deserves more attention?

One thing that we’ve done is the implementation of acquisition reform, particularly taking advantage of new authorities that Congress gave us in the fiscal year 2018 National Defense Authorization Act to buy things faster and smarter. We have expanded authorities to do rapid prototyping and to use Other Transaction Authority [cost sharing partnership with industry] contracts. The Space and Missile Systems Center has restructured nine major “pace setters” programs and has taken 19 years out of the schedule of those nine programs. The Air Force hired the consulting firm McKinsey to help reorganize SMC, we flattened the organization, removed three layers of bureaucracy. I’m pretty impressed so far with what I’m seeing there. What is remarkable is that a year ago, 75 percent of Air Force major acquisition programs were held by the Office of the Secretary of Defense. A year later, the Air Force is in control of 75 percent of our major acquisition programs. When I was a member of Congress, I used to talk a lot about acquisition reform. Now I’m implementing it. We are showing significant results.

Are acquisition reforms like the use of OTAs and industry consortia going to have lasting impact or are they just temporary solutions?

Part of it is changing culture. You change the culture by changing the way in which we do things and by rewarding success. Pushing authority down is a major change. That allows program managers to spend more time managing their programs and less time managing the Pentagon. We are getting back to our roots of a bunch of bicycle mechanics who are really good at what we do. The way you change culture is you change patterns, put in place the authorities, change how the instructions are written, then you train and develop people to those expectations. And if it stays in place long enough, then it will become “the way it is around here.” If people say that’s the way the Air Force does it, then you’ve succeeded at changing the culture.

After a year in which you have built some momentum in space funding and procurement reforms, is there a risk that the Space Force reorganization and budget pressures could slow things down?

What I tell the Air Force, and all airmen, is to set aside the issue of organizational structure and just do the work. The work that we are doing is vitally important to the country. With regard to the budget, Secretary [of Defense] Jim Mattis said final decisions on the budget have not been made yet. This is the season in which everyone does budget drills and tries to optimize and get the most out of the dollars we are given. The important thing about budget decisions is that they be driven by the national defense strategy and the threats that we see.

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