The United States Air Force (USAF) looks to be on the verge of admitting it can’t spend the money on its own people to operate its own satellites. They are considering some piecemeal options for moving contractors into what were military positions. This SpaceNews post describes four studies the USAF will be contracting out to figure out if they should outsource certain space operations: “operating the service’s research and development satellites; operating its geosynchronous-orbiting satellites; operating a limited number of geosynchronous satellites; and picking up the responsibilities of a single shuttered Air Force ground station.”
Yes, you read that right, the USAF will spend money on contractors to conduct studies about options that would give other contractors more USAF money, to operate equipment owned by the USAF. Isn’t this akin to hiring contractors to fly the USAF’s fighter jets, because training and maintaining a fighter pilot force costs too much money, too? And yet, no one in the USAF seems to be bringing that up (and yes–it is the AIR FORCE–I understand that).
Of course contractors have been involved with satellite operations for a while. I’ve worked with a few. They’re great. They typically are very motivated. And they have a great amount of knowledge to pass on, if anyone bothers to listen. But they are civilians. Loyal civilians, but civilians nonetheless. And the USAF is exploring the options of adding more while diminishing its own stock of space operations expertise. It’s studies like the ones the USAF is contracting out, that makes me think it’s really time for them to split Air from Space. Time to have a true space force, one that won’t even think about stripping out their core military space experts, because those are who are needed to win a war. A space force won’t have to worry about balancing decisions such as how many more fighter planes to buy vs. that awesome new satellite that will give the US an edge in space.
The cutting of military space personnel isn’t new. The USAF was cutting space operators long before I decided to get out in 2007. They kept on cutting afterwards, too. But just how deep is the USAF going to cut before it finds all the space operators it let go sitting in the same positions, but as more expensive contractors? It’s already happening with certain space systems. And most of the contractors will need a Top Secret clearance, which the government has noted to be an issue already–too many contractors with clearances.
Sure, it might be cheaper to run space operations (although knowing government contracts and military contracting companies, I seriously doubt it), and day-to-day, the contractors will be fine. But what happens when ground sites and satellites are targeted? A GPS-guided cruise missile loaded with the right coordinates would take out possibly half of the contracted space operations expertise for some systems in one strike. Are there redundant systems, with personnel ready to man such systems? Listening to the money squeeze the USAF is facing, it doesn’t sound like it.
And while the United States government is seemingly going along with the USAF study proposals, there’s a country watching and likely hoping the USAF will find the ‘efficiencies’ within these studies worth exploring. If the USAF does that, it will possibly the best thing that could happen for China. I mentioned yesterday that China is moving ahead and building up their own dedicated space force. Shouldn’t that kind of news make general officers here in the US think hard about the direction certain elements seem to want to take the USAF?
China seems to be more serious than the United States regarding investing people and money into military space operations. The idea of a dedicated space force is one the United States Air Force toyed with but never truly implemented. The USAF actually went in the opposite direction and cut down their space operations force, gutting the expertise of America’s space force. And with this latest SpaceNews post, it sounds like they’d like to cut some more.
This is not to say the USAF isn’t playing around with their own interesting satellites. But it seems that China understands it’s not just technology, but also about investing in space expertise in people, and giving their space operators an edge in any space combat scenario. Meanwhile, certain USAF generals worry about what font is being used on a PowerPoint slide, working on more impactful mission statements, and waiting for study results with that nice, well-used, rubber stamp ready to go. Who do you think is more ready for a space conflict?