WASHINGTON: The Air Force may formally ask Congress for more time to fulfill last year’s legislative mandate to create a new Senate-confirmed assistant secretary for space acquisition, one of the service’s top officials said today.
While deputy assistant secretary Shawn Barnes was tactful enough not to reject the mandate outright — it was passed into law as part of the defense policy bill for 2020 — the Air Force seems reluctant to create the position, which would yield yet more of the service’s turf to the nascent Space Force. With additional time, however, the Air Force could try to work out a compromise proposal that it could live with and that Congress could accept.
The request for more time is likely to come in the Air Force’s long-overdue report to Congress on space acquisition, which is currently awaiting White House approval.
“I think the Department of the Air Force’s position is — and it’ll probably say this in the final space acquisition report — that that’s something we’d like to go over a little bit more, and come back to the Hill with some additional thoughts,” Barnes told reporters today.
“I think there’s a variety of opinions about how best to accomplish that. And I understand both sides of the argument there,” he added diplomatically.
As Breaking D readers know, there has been intense internal disagreement about splitting space acquisition control out of the Air Force Office of Acquisition, Technology and Logistics, headed by Will Roper. Roper has argued strenuously against a bifurcation of the lines of authority for space and air acquisition as inefficient, costly and counter to DoD efforts to better integrate space across warfighting domains — according to a number of DoD sources, even threatening to resign if such a move were to go through.
The 2020 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) requires the Air Force to appoint a Senate-confirmed assistant secretary for space acquisition and integration. That person, the act said, “will “synchronize with the Air Force Service Acquisition Executive on all space system efforts, and take on Service Acquisition Executive responsibilities for space systems and programs effective on October 1, 2022.”
Air Force Secretary Barbara Barrett was mandated to provide Congress with the space acquisition report, which the Air Force has dubbed the “Alternate Acquisition” report, by March 30. It originally had been delayed to ensure that it was consistent with a second space acquisition report emanating from DoD acquisition chief Ellen Lord’s office for signature by Defense Secretary Mark Esper, that was mandated in the 2019 NDAA.
The current hold-up, Barnes said, is due to some “sticking points” with the Office of Management and Budget (OMB). For example, OMB and the Air Force are still working out what acquisition authorities can be delegated downward in the chain of command without requiring legislative changes, he said.
As drafted, the Air Force report contained three recommendations that would require legislative action, and six that could be taken internally by DoD and the service.
One recommendation that will require legislative approval is that the Space Force be given budgetary flexibility to manage acquisition via “portfolios” containing multiple programs. This mechanism would allow it to shift funds from one specific program to another, without going back to Congress for the okay. This, the Air Force argues, would allow the Space Force to rapidly shift gears if one program is faltering but another is actually ready to move more quickly.
Barnes said that Air Force acquisition leaders believe “that being able to manage both requirements and dollars at the portfolio level allows us to make good, smart trades, and ends up being a much better use of the taxpayers dollars.”
The House Appropriations Committee, however, begs to differ. In their 2021 defense spending bill, passed July 14, the committee nixed efforts by the Air Force to collapse 14 individual research and develop budgetary program elements (the budgetary code for a specific program with a specific funding line) into six “portfolios.”
“The granting of additional budget flexibility to the Department is based on the presumption that a state of trust and comity exists between the legislative and executive branches regarding the proper use of appropriated funds,” the bill report said. “This presumption presently is false.”
Barnes acknowledged that the Air and Space Forces would need to take measures to ensure transparency about where funding was being shifted and why, saying that he has been in discussions on the issue with Hill staff.
“We owe it to them to be able to explain how we intend to do these things in a more transparent fashion. And we believe that just because you’re managing by portfolio, doesn’t mean that you’re then putting some sort of a cloud or a screen around that,” he stressed.
The Air Force’s roll out of its plans for space acquisition has been marked by controversy and, at times, what seems to be a lack of internal coordination. For example, the service delivered the document to Congress on May 20, only to have it yanked back by DoD.
In addition, there has been a long-running internal debate about whether and when the Space Development Agency (SDA) should be folded into the Space Force acquisition chain, with Barrett advocating for it to be transferred as soon as possible.
That dispute broke into the public domain when SDA Director Derek Tournear, then-DoD head of research and engineering Mike Griffin, and his then-deputy Lisa Porter co-authored an op-ed in Space News suggesting that SDA should remain independent indefinitely, despite congressional language that, on the face of it, mandates a merger by October 2022. Tourner later clarified that the idea was to wait until the end of 2023, when SDA would have placed its first set of satellites in orbit.
“I still maintain that, consistent with where Secretary Barrett wants to go, that we want to transition SDA into the Space Force sooner rather than later. But I also understand SDA’s perspective on this,” Barnes said.
“There is nothing in law that specifies a date on that,” he added. “But I think there’s been a reasonable agreement that we’ve been looking at right around the beginning of fiscal year 2023.”