As the Air Force C-32 winged its way toward Colorado Springs on Monday, aides to Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan enthusiastically looked forward to what they had dubbed “Space Week.” We were en route to the Space Symposium, perhaps the world’s foremost annual gathering of top space professionals — military, civil, and commercial.
The highlight of Shanahan’s appearance at the Symposium was his keynote address on Tuesday, a clear, concise, plain-language speech delivered before he headed back to Washington to testify at today’s Senate Armed Services Committee hearing about the Trump administration’s proposal to create a Space Force.
Some of the biggest headlines out of this year’s Symposium concerned a sideshow dispute between Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson and Fred Kennedy, head of the new Space Development Agency.
But the bigger news in my book is the sense of enthusiasm that suffused the conference, a marked uptick from the past few years.There was a sense of energy among government officials and contractors alike, even though there still seems to be no consensus about whether creating a Space Force is the best way ahead. But they’re eagerly awaiting guidance.
“We have a lot of people focused on what is not working,” said Bill Gattle, president of Harris Corporation’s Space and Intelligence Systems segment. “There’s not a lot of people coming forward with what is working.”
The current way the Pentagon buys satellites is complex. The Air Force’s Space and Missiles Systems Center buys the large, communications, navigation, weather and missile warning satellites and their launch rockets. The Air Force Space Rapid Capabilities Office buys smaller satellites to address urgent battlefield needs. DARPA buys satellites for research projects. The Navy and Army have satellites of their own to communicate with ships and soldiers. Don’t forget the National Reconnaissance Office and other intelligence-community satellites. And now comes the Space Development Agency, which is planning to buy hundreds of satellites to augment and perhaps replace some of those larger satellites already flown by the Air Force.
But there’s hope that some clarity will arrive as Congress weighs in over the coming months.
Regardless, space is getting a lot of attention — how it affects Americans’ daily lives, how it enables the Pentagon’s way of war, how China and Russia are working on weapons to could knock satellites out of orbit. We’re seeing more and more commercial companies entering the military space business. Bob Smith, CEO of Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin, and Gwynne Shotwell, president of Elon Musk’s SpaceX, were among a handful of executives to meet with top Air Force brass here this week.
Following the success of the Air Force’s “Pitch Day” in New York last month — where the service awarded contracts to small businesses in a matter of minutes — the service is planning a “Space Pitch Day” to find new space-related ideas and technologies from non-traditional companies. The event will be held in Los Angeles in coming months; up to $40 million is up for grabs.
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Space Development Agency Head Talks Big Game
Fred Kenney, the new head of the Space Development Agency, set the tone at the Space Symposium when he talked about his vision for creating a web of hundreds of commercial satellites in low-Earth orbit that could back up or replace larger traditional ones further away from the planet. His main focus: move fast. I asked him how he’ll make sure he’s not throwing money away:
“This is not the Wild West. We’re going to do this right. Quick is quick compared to what we do today. But what I’m really doing is I’m…trying to short-circuit a lot of the up-front requirements and acquisition red tape you’d normally go through. We’re still going to do our technical due diligence. The systems that we need to go build, we’re going to look at that. We’re going to put the right people on there, the right technical capabilities on there to ensure that we build the right things. That’s still going to happen. What I’m trying to get around in the two-to-four-year lag that always ends up being inserted to make our paperwork right, most of which, I hate to tell you, is not value added.”
Here’s something we heard before: There needs to be a “rules of the road” for operating in space, Kennedy said, echoing calls we’ve heard here in the past. “We don’t just let everybody fly their planes anywhere in the world … we have an air traffic control system,” he said. “In the same way, we need to establish a global space traffic management system that goes all the way to lunar orbit.”
New Space Force Documentary
Even though it doesn’t exist yet, the Space Force has its own documentary. The Center for Strategic and International Studies put together a 20-minute video tracing the history of the U.S. military in space and the attempts to create a service to centralize its orbital operations. Called “Commanding Space: The Story Behind the Space Force,” it features Rep. Jim Cooper, D-Tenn.; Doug Loverro, former deputy assistant defense secretary for space policy; retired Gen. Ron Fogleman, retired Gen. Robert Kehler; and others. It’s narrated by Todd Harrison, who directs the CSIS Aerospace Security Project. Watch it here.
Some Non-Space Stuff
State Department OKs SM-3 Sale to Japan. The $1.2 billion deal would be for 56 SM-3 Block IB missiles, which are built by Raytheon. “Also included are missile canisters, U.S. Government and contractor representatives’ technical assistance, engineering and logistical support services, and other related elements of logistics and program support,” according to an April 9 Pentagon statement.
Air Force To Start Accepting New Tanker, Again. Last week, the Air Force once again stopped accepting KC-46 tankers because debris was left inside during their construction. Here’s what Will Roper, the head of Air Force acquisition, told reporters here in Colorado on Tuesday: “We told Boeing if we found FOD, we’re going to shut the line again and create an even more stringent inspection procedures for both Boeing and [Defense Contract Management Agency] — open up every sealed area on every aircraft — and approve that corrective plan before we resume acceptances. Friday, I reviewed those plans with Boeing and I’m very satisfied with Boeing…that they’ve treated this seriously and inspections are thorough, involves opening up area that are sealed, involves draining fuel tanks and climbing in and inspecting… these are not insignificant inspections.” The Air Force will receive two new tankers as soon as next week.
Lockheed Martin to Cut Ribbon on New F-16 Plant: Two years ago, we broke the news that Lockheed would move its F-16 production line from Fort Worth, Texas, to Greenville, South Carolina. Less than two weeks from now, on April 23, the company will hold an opening ceremony, according to an April 9 statement. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., Gov. Henry McMaster and other members of Congress and local politicians are expected to attend. The first F-16 built in Greenville will be for Bahrain.
Japanese F-35 Crash: So far, investigators don’t know why. The pilot has not been found, but parts of the planes have been located. Most of the aircraft is believed to be nearly 5,000 feet underwater.
Lots of movement among the military’s top ranks, including.
- Adm. Bill Moran, vice CNO, to be the next chief of naval operations.
- Gen. Mark Milley, army chief of staff, to be chairman of the Joint Chiefs
- Gen. John Hyten, head of U.S. Strategic Command, to be vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs.
And some other nominations:
- Marine Corps Lt. Gen. Eric M. Smith to be deputy commandant for Combat Development and Integration at the Pentagon. He currently leads III Marine Expeditionary Force and Commander, Marine Forces Japan.
- Air Force Maj. Gen. Eric Fick, to get his third star and become director of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter Program. He’s currently the deputy director.