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Exclusive: Top Air Force bosses pledge renewed focus on space mission

May 29, 2017 Updated: May 30, 2017 at 10:15 am
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Secretary of the Air Force Dr. Heather Wilson addresses cadets Wednesday, May 24, 2017, during Air Force Academy Commencement. Photo by Mark Reis, The Gazette

New Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson says you can tell her priorities by seeing where she spent her first days in office.

Nine days into her tenure, the secretary has spent five of them on space, including four touring the space assets housed in Colorado Springs. The 1982 Air Force Academy graduate sees the constellation of satellites her service controls as the first targets of the next war.

"We are heavily dependent on space and our adversaries know it," Wilson said.

The secretary along with Air Force chief of staff Gen. David Goldfein and Space Command boss Gen. Jay Raymond sat down for an exclusive talk with The Gazette last week about the service's renewed focus on orbit.

During five years of Pentagon belt-tightening, Air Force space spending fell as military leaders sought to preserve programs like the $1.5 trillion F-35 fighter.

During those years, though, America's rivals rushed to develop their own military space programs while plotting new tactics to disrupt and destroy American satellites.

Now, the Air Force has asked Congress for a 20 percent boost in space spending, including a 27 percent hike in space-related research. A new center in Colorado Springs is building war plans for conflicts that extend into orbit and Space Command has redoubled efforts to train its airmen for battle beyond the sky.

"The nation expects us to own the high ground," Goldfein said.

Ownership of that high ground has been slipping since China's 2007 successful demonstration of anti-satellite technology. Now, with Russia showing increasing anti-U.S. sentiments, North Korea developing space-capable missiles and Iran quickly developing its own anti-satellite capabilities, the vast reaches of space are becoming increasingly crowded and dangerous.

"That's where our adversaries are going," Goldfein said.

Space Command hasn't been idle as the threats have grown.

Raymond and his predecessor, Gen. John Hyten, developed a new training regimen designed to educate younger airmen while capitalizing on the skills of the command's most experienced satellite operators.

In Colorado Springs, the National Space Defense Center at Schriever Air Force base opened for business in 2015, bringing together Space Command experts with their counterparts from intelligence agencies for a series of war games to develop the nation's first "contingency" operating plans for space battle.

Space Command is also taking advantage of the sudden explosion of commercial space firms offering a new generation of rockets, and a new spirit of competition that's cutting the cost of satellite launch.

Wilson plans to build on those efforts with more space airmen and more training and new systems to keep track of objects in orbit. Also in the works are a new generation of satellites, including smaller orbiters that can be launched quickly to meet demand.

The emphasis on space, including a $1.6 billion budget hike planned for 2018 and much more in 2019, is a reflection how much the military relies on satellites.

The Colorado Springs command oversees spacecraft that give troops on the ground everything from weather reports and instant communications to missile warning and precise locations of their enemies.

The advantages of space have allowed the American military the luxury of a smaller, more lethal force than that possessed by rivals thanks to satellite-enabled technologies from smart bombs to killer drones.

Raymond said the role space plays in American warfare has only grown with battles in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"For the last 16 years we have focused on integrating space into every element of the strategic fight," he said.

The Army, the military's biggest consumer of satellite services, is worried enough about the prospect of satellites being targets in a war that they have sergeants and lieutenants whipping out old-fashioned compasses for training. The Navy has dusted off its collection of sextants for the same reason.

Concerns about space have escaped the Pentagon and spilled into Congress where Alabama Republican Rep. Mike Rogers, who heads a space-aimed subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee, has argued that America needs a separate "space force" because generals and admirals are focused on land, sea and air battles rather than looming threats above Earth.

Goldfein said he's happy that lawmakers are looking to orbit, but noted the Air Force is aggressively addressing space shortcomings.

"It is a dialogue we've got to keep open," he said.

And plans that have been on the drawing board for years are beginning to take shape.

The Pentagon, for instance, approved a new small satellite that will be sent to orbit to monitor weather over the Indian Ocean.

Raymond said his command plans on making better use of "rapid acquisition" - authorities that allow short-cuts to the Pentagon's notoriously long-winded weapon-buying scheme. That could have Space Command fielding new gear in months or years rather than decades,

Goldfein said newcomers to space, companies like Elon Musk's SpaceX and Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin, could also help the Air Force move more quickly in its space efforts.

"There is a huge opportunity as commercial space is growing," he said.

Wilson, who took the secretary post on May 16, said she's happy with Space Command's trajectory.

"I've been pleased to see all the work that has been done, especially in the past 18 to 24 months," she said.

And Wilson said she intends to make growing Space Command's capabilities a top priority of her tenure.

The secretary looked at Goldfein and Raymond as she emphasized her dedication to the space cause.

"There's a lot more to do," she said.

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Contact Tom Roeder: 636-0240

Twitter: @xroederx

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