Washington Watch

Oct. 1, 2010

Organize Your Space

Following an eight-month review, Air Force Secretary Michael B. Donley has directed a sweeping reorganization of the service’s headquarters space management structure, consolidating functions and designating Air Force Undersecretary Erin C. Conaton as the focal point for space matters.

The Air Force is also negotiating with the Defense Department about its status as executive agent for space. The review found that although it technically has EA status, the Air Force lacks “the authority necessary to address and resolve space issues within DOD” and wants to clarify just how far its authority goes.

The service is hoping to finally resolve uncertainty about its executive agent status, which has persisted since 2005, when prolonged vacancies in top USAF positions saw its space management functions pulled back by the Office of the Secretary of Defense.

In a late August memo to senior USAF leadership, Donley said the restructuring will “posture us to accommodate any future decisions on the roles and functions of the EA for space.” Donley had previously expressed his wish that USAF be given back full EA authorities to direct defense space activities.

Donley’s order contained nine broad actions to streamline USAF’s myriad headquarters efforts on space policy, acquisition, and operations. Conaton was named as the senior USAF official for space, having authority over all space matters involving “planning, policy, strategy, international relations, space interagency relations” and will be the main point of contact with the Office of the Secretary of Defense on space matters.

However, the assistant secretary of the Air Force for acquisition will be in charge of space procurement issues.

Moreover, although not mentioned in Donley’s memo or the review, Donley—not Conaton—will remain the individual with executive agent authority. In the past, Air Force Secretaries have delegated this authority to their undersecretaries. Donley gave his HQ space enterprise until the start of September to implement his directives.

The other changes largely reaffirm the existing headquarters space functions but streamline their reporting chains. One of them creates an Air Force Space Board, chaired by Conaton and Gen. Carrol H. Chandler, the vice chief of staff. The board will integrate USAF’s space enterprise efforts and coordinate with the other military branches in the space domain.

The review was based on interviews with 70 key space leaders who have served at various levels in USAF, DOD, and other agencies with a related space function. It was prepared by Richard W. McKinney, Air Force deputy undersecretary for space programs. In a report to Donley, McKinney said the space leaders interviewed considered the Air Force’s often disconnected space oversight efforts to be “confusing” and ripe for streamlining.

However, “those interviewed were near unanimous in saying, ‘Don’t change what is working well,’ especially in the operational arena,” McKinney said. Those things included the integration of space capabilities in joint activity at all levels; development of 14th Air Force “operational expertise”; the training of space professionals; cooperation with US STRATCOM; space launch; and on-orbit operations.

Donley’s directive was focused solely on headquarters activities and didn’t address any changes in field organizations such as Air Force Space Command or the Space and Missile Systems Center in California, where most of USAF’s space system development activities are handled.

McKinney posed two questions in his review: “Does the Department of Defense want to have an executive agent for space?” and how could DOD “better integrate the large number of space governance organizations?” Answering the second question, McKinney suggested that DOD set up its own Space Council, comparable in scope and authority to the Deputy’s Advisory Working Group, the powerful joint board of service vice chiefs charged with deconflicting DOD efforts. Creating a Space Council would allow OSD to consolidate or eliminate many of its space committees that don’t easily fit together, or with other space organizations, McKinney said.

Piecing it Together

Within the Air Force headquarters, however, space responsibilities are “fragmented,” McKinney said. The arrangement made sense seven years ago when USAF was made executive agent and had wide and definitive authority over the overall DOD space enterprise. However, since much of that authority was taken back by the DOD leadership, “this organizational construct is no longer effective or efficient,” he wrote.

The Air Force was named executive agent for space by Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld in 2003. The move was based on recommendations from a panel Rumsfeld himself had chaired immediately before taking over at the Pentagon. It was charged with suggesting ways to more efficiently and effectively align the bewildering array of space activities among the four armed services and defense agencies.

Rumsfeld named the Air Force and its Secretary the executive agent for space, a title and authority that was then delegated to the undersecretary. To further consolidate and rationalize military space, the undersecretary was given a second hat as head of the National Reconnaissance Office, a heavy user of USAF space assets and expertise, and a partner in developing sensitive space systems.

In 2005, though, mounting budget overruns and schedule delays with key USAF space projects made headlines. Then-Air Force Secretary James G. Roche left in January of that year, and his replacement, Michael W. Wynne, wasn’t confirmed until nine months later. Peter B. Teets, the undersecretary-acting Secretary-head of the NRO, left office two months after Roche and was not replaced for the rest of the Bush Administration. (Conaton was not installed as the undersecretary until a year after Obama was in office.)

In the 2005 absence of confirmed Air Force leaders—and with cost overruns continuing to draw congressional ire—OSD took back milestone authority for space from the Air Force. That meant OSD, not Air Force, would have the authority to approve development, advancement, or production of any space system and deal with Congress as to the overall space picture for the Pentagon.

The Air Force said that not having milestone authority hasn’t rendered its executive agent status moot. A service spokesman said it has been doing overall DOD space planning since 2003, develops the annual National Security Space Plan for all DOD components, and provides oversight for DOD’s Operationally Responsive Space Office.

However, USAF gave up the NRO job in 2009, when Bruce Carlson, a retired USAF general and former head of Air Force Materiel Command, took command of the agency. Donley, in his memo, said the undersecretary and NRO positions were deemed too big a job for one person.

In his report, McKinney recommended that the Air Force establish “a very visible and effective headquarters focal point for space in Washington, D.C.,” the better to coordinate with OSD, the other services, and other space-using federal agencies.

Moving the Fighter Goalposts

The Air Force has revised its planned inventory of fighters downward several times in the last few years, but the Government Accountability Office, in a recent report, says USAF won’t even hit its reduced fighter level goals.

The report, “Tactical Aircraft: DOD’s Ability To Meet Future Requirements Is Uncertain, With Key Analyses Needed To Inform Upcoming Investment Decisions,” was released in August. It notes that the Air Force plans to maintain a fighter inventory of 2,000 fighters for the foreseeable future—down from 2,500 in 2002 and 2,250 last year—but will actually drop below that level in 2012 and continue declining to a plateau of about 1,800 aircraft in 2030, under best-case conditions.

The new F-35 fighter won’t be delivered fast enough to keep pace with the retirement of old F-16s, the GAO said. Even if the Air Force were to hold to a production rate of 80 F-35s a year, though—a rate GAO said is “optimistic”—it would not be able to sustain its desired numbers, as the oldest fighters age beyond their life expectancy and it becomes uneconomical to extend their service lives.

Moreover, “the services have not fully reconsidered tactical aircraft requirements in light of recent changes in strategic planning and threat assessments,” which probably put the needed numbers of fighters higher than the services have pegged them: 2,000 for the Air Force, 820 for the Navy, and 420 for the Marine Corps.

The Air Force and Navy-Marine Corps received marching orders in the Quadrennial Defense Review to maintain their force structure for the coming 15 years. However, delays in the F-35, the fact that no new fighters are on the drawing board, and uncertainties about the role to be played by remotely piloted aircraft make it almost impossible to suggest what the services ought to do about the looming shortage, GAO reported. The Pentagon needs to do a “joint comprehensive analysis that compares and contrasts the costs and benefits of various Air Force and Navy options for addressing inventory shortfalls,” according to the report.

The GAO assumed that the new F-22 inventory will remain fixed at about 186 aircraft through 2030. Also lasting through that year, at about 310 aircraft, is the fleet of A-10s, which are undergoing a structural and equipment upgrade—including new wings—that will extend their lives. The fleets of F-15C/Ds and F-15Es will diminish slowly from a combined 500 or so airplanes through the end of the 2010s, then rapidly age out in the 2020s. The F-16 fleet will hold steady at about 900 aircraft for a few years, then begin a steady retirement of about 100 a year, until the type vanishes in about 2031.

The GAO noted that the expected USAF shortfall isn’t as bad as once was thought.

“At one point, the shortfall was expected to be as large as 800 aircraft,” when the Air Force was expecting to produce only 48 F-35s a year—something that still may happen if procurement accounts are slashed further. The shortfall was reduced in part by the Air Force’s dialing down its planned inventories by 250 aircraft. Last year, the Air Force elected to retire 250 aircraft early, with the idea of applying the savings toward buying F-35s and paying for upgrades to the remaining legacy aircraft.

The Air Force F-35 and F-16 inventories, according to the service, will be roughly equal in 2021; the GAO is skeptical of that assertion.

“The Air Force has established a [new] servicewide method of calculating aircraft service life,” the GAO noted. “This new calculation accounts for both the number of flight hours and the severity of flight conditions, a calculation that the Air Force believes will improve both fleet management and force planning by providing higher quality information regarding aircraft structural life.”

Among its recommendations—mostly having to do with obtaining more accurate data on how long aircraft will last and how many are required to fulfill national strategy—the GAO suggested that the Pentagon expand its Aircraft Investment Plan, the first of which was released with the Fiscal 2011 budget request.

In addition to mapping out simply how many aircraft the Pentagon will buy, the GAO suggested the Pentagon also note what structural or capability improvements or service life extensions are planned for existing aircraft. The Pentagon responded that such reporting won’t be included in future editions of the Aircraft Investment Plan because Congress didn’t ask for it.