Reserved Perceptions in Military Space operations–Part 2

That’s illegal!  Call the IG!

Last week’s post was about the possible perception of reservist contractors having a vested interest in the success of the company they work with as reservists.  The responses to the post were a few comments about calling a spade a spade and to sic the Inspector General (IG) on those involved in this kind of situation.

There are laws, specifically the Joint Ethics Regulations, regarding conflict of interests involving reservists, after all.  However, I don’t think the laws were created with the kind of situations evolving in the “space operations” realm.  Nor were they created when a few monolithic prime contracting companies were integrated into research activities the Air Force does for future space systems.  I do think the laws were created with more common problems in mind, for military reservists with broader skillsets.  What is the difference, if there is one, for space operations reservists, and why does one exist?

Active duty and Reserves

First, a little explanation to describe how reservists are employed in the Air Force Reserve as space operators.  I think this description can be applied to other Air Force units and job categories as well.

Each Air Force space system has a “unit” or two dedicated to them.  These units consist of space operators, instructors, evaluators, management, administration, etc.  All are dedicated to make sure the space system’s mission runs without missing a beat.  Typically, active duty personnel belong to these units and run these missions day-to-day.  But sometimes reservists will come in to stay proficient on these space systems, too.

Air Force Reserve units have the same missions as their active duty counterparts, but they don’t work on these systems (unless there are special orders) for the same amount of time.  And yes, there are reserve units dedicated to each space system, as you can see here (

For example, the 8th SWS reserve unit operates the current Space Based Infrared System (SBIRS).  They have evaluators, operators, instructors, etc.—all doing what their active duty counterpart, the 2nd SWS, are doing.  The catch:  there’s only so many hours the Air Force Reserve will allow the squadron’s space operators to work, so the 8th SWS space operators have to find a “real” job.  Reservists in other Air Force job categories also deal with this issue, and must also find “real” work.

So many operators, so little jobs…

Now, job opportunities for space operators might be a little different than the circumstances and opportunities that exist for reservist pilots or finance officers (as examples).  Pilots can work for United, Frontier, Boeing, Airbus, etc.  Finance officers:  Coldwell Banker, or some other firm.  Both have options related to what they do as a reservist, but the jobs themselves can be very much separated from their reservist duties.  Therefore, there isn’t even a perceived conflict of interest.

There aren’t as many jobs out there using space operator-specific skills (believe me—I’ve looked).  At least not jobs that don’t require working for specific big companies who have the Air Force as a customer.  Space operations is specialized and not very well-defined in the United States Air Force (for an understanding of that problem, you can read my post, here).  This can cause some issues for space operations reservists looking for work as a contractor, especially when dealing with REALLY specialized missions.

As an example:  in SBIRS alone, you have your crew commander (and a deputy), you have the actual instrumentation operators, the payload operators, the bus monitors, the analysts, the intelligence Airmen, etc.  All crew positions are dedicated to a particular kind of space operation they call Overhead Persistent Infrared (OPIR).  How many other OPIR missions are out there run by private companies?  And how many contracting companies specialize in OPIR (more than you think, but not as many as there should be)?  The United States Air Force, then, expects its space reservists to come to work a couple of days a month and operate SBIRS without much difficulty.  What can an OPIR space operator do in the meantime?  They get a job.

Living with self-sacrifice

But what kind?  To be very clear on my end, I am not an apologist for the decisions these reservists make.  I personally believe ANY link between a reserve job and a “real job” is ethically wrong.  Because of this stance (having ethics), I am naturally not a lawyer, then.  

Can reservists choose another job–one that won’t use their “space skills?”  Well, yes–but I think there’s a real possibility that kind of job doesn’t pay very well.  Perhaps the difference for space operations reservists from pilots or finance officers is it’s a very clear case of sacrificing a private/personal good for the country’s?  Or is that a case of the “grass is always greener?”  Self-sacrifice is always the rationale given for joining the military to begin with.

Can reservists choose a space job as their “real job” and maintain that kind of ethical separation?  Of course they can–there just aren’t many of those kind of jobs out there that don’t involve a big contracting company already working with the Air Force.  Is it breaking the law or regulation if they do choose to go that route?  It turns out the answer is “That depends…”


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