The former head of U.S. Strategic Command took a hard look at how U.S. space capabilities would fare under attack. His verdict? Not so great.

Credit: Level 3 Communications

Credit: Level 3 Communications

Few people are in a better position to evaluate the resilience of U.S. military space systems than retired Navy Adm. James Ellis Jr., who recently co-chaired a National Academies panel exploring threats to national-security space systems and potential strategies to counter those threats for the Director of National Intelligence and Office of the Secretary of Defense.

His overall assessment? “We are not where we need to be,” Ellis warned members of the House Armed Services strategic forces subcommittee during a Sept. 27 hearing.

Ellis told the House panel that a single individual within the Office of the Secretary of Defense should oversee U.S. military space policy and strategy. He lauded Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James, who the Defense Department designated its Principal Deputy Space Advisor in October 2015, for her work, but questioned whether anyone outside the Office of the Secretary of Defense could perform the job effectively.

Ellis spoke with SpaceNews correspondent Debra Werner after the hearing about proposals to help the Defense Department make space system more resilient, including the idea of modeling a space organization on the U.S. Special Operations Command, which is attempting to dramatically streamline the acquisition process, and the creation of a Civil Reserve Space Fleet along the lines of the Civil Reserve Air Fleet, a Defense Department program offering airlines business during peacetime in exchange for agreements to transport people and cargo during crises.

Ellis, a naval aviator, retired in 2004 after a 39-year career that culminated with his job of overseeing the merger of U.S. Strategic Command with U.S. Air Force Space Command. Previously, Ellis commanded U.S. naval forces in Europe and allied forces in southern Europe.

In terms of fixing this problem, would your first step be to create an undersecretary of defense for space?

I’m not a believer in an organizational solution for every problem, but I do believe there has to be a level of accountability. The secretary of the Air Force is not the level that can reach directly into the Office of the Secretary of Defense to deal with the national-security space issues, coordinate effectively with the National Reconnaissance Organization, and have an outward face to the commercial industry and to allies. That’s asking a bit much of Secretary James, as skilled and as talented as she is. She doesn’t have a huge staff to support it.

And there are optics involved. Having an undersecretary of defense is a signal of the importance and the focus we are beginning to put on this. So I do believe that creating an undersecretary of defense for space would have to be the first piece of it.

You are not optimistic that designating the Air Force Secretary James as the Principal Deputy Space Advisor is enough?

No. I don’t think that’s going to be sufficient given the scale of the challenges we are facing now, have faced and will face down the road. We need it at a higher level. The Air Force secretary is running the greatest air force in the world. I assume that was a full-time job before she got this advisory role. The term “advisory” bothers me, as well. Sometimes, somebody has to make a decision.

Would you create a new organization within the Defense Department?

If there are organizational changes that make sense down the road, the undersecretary would make those decisions and be accountable for those changes. It rarely works if outside organizations impose structures on others.

There seems to be great recognition lately about the critical nature and vulnerability of national security space.

Yes. And there is a lot of money being put towards it, which is also good. But that’s not the real metric. Money is important. You can’t get it done without the resources, and the people are a huge part of that. But how are we going to spend the money?

It is not clear to me that we have all the tools we need to look at the nodes and vulnerabilities of the system we have created in space — commercial, intelligence, national security, weather and NASA — so that we know where to get the most effectiveness for every dollar we spend.

We can do that in other military missions, such as conventional strike, for example. We have models that tell us if we have one more dollar to spend, whether to spend it on stealth capability for airplanes, standoff jammers or precision weapons. You can model those things and get a sense of where you are going to get the most impact. It’s not clear to me that we have those tools that apply to the space domain.

Would an undersecretary of defense need to create those tools?

They could borrow them and rework them from other elements within the Department of Defense. We need to validate our contingency response plans in the context of degradations in space.

Are you referring to the idea of a stress test that John Hamre, former deputy defense secretary, suggested during the Sept. 27 hearing?

Yes. As you would imagine in the Department of Defense, there are contingency plans for a whole range of contingencies. You will plan for 100 contingencies, and fate will deal you the 101st. You are not going to get it exactly right, but that planning hasn’t gone to waste. It can be used to rapidly reassemble and realign to face a challenge that is just a little bit different than the one you planned for.

The fact of the matter is, if everyone is assuming perfect and complete availability of all space systems, that is an assumption we can no longer guarantee. John Hamre suggested a stress test. That has to be done and overseen at the secretary of defense level for all the other services and agencies.

The U.S. military also struggles to efficiently acquire space systems. Would creating an undersecretary of defense for space, solve that problem?

No. One of the Government Accountability Office proposals was to hive off national-security space procurement and make that a standalone entity. But let’s fix the broader acquisition process because, inevitably, there are going to be linkages and overlaps. In the meantime, there are ways that we can demonstrate more trust in those who are responsible for programs. We can stop looking to squeeze every ounce of capability out of our systems and buy more resilience instead. There are procurement initiatives that can be focused on the space domain.

Such as?

The Special Operations Command model doesn’t translate directly because they are buying stuff that already exists off the shelf instead of going through the procurement system, but something like that could be done. There are commercial satellite buses that could be used for national security satellites. There are other mechanisms on the commercial satellite communications side that can better serve the needs of the national security infrastructure. John Hamre mentioned the Civil Reserve Air Fleet in commercial aviation. Airlines get a stipend every year to have planes and pilots ready and reconfigurable to take troops and supplies to crises. We used that extensively in the Gulf War scenarios. There are models out there that don’t require waiting for the national security system to be reformed. This is too important to wait for the process to be solved.

How would something like CRAF work for space?

The Department of Defense would offer a stipend or pay for a portion of the cost of a communications satellite, for example. When we don’t need it, it is up there and used for the company’s business: television, maritime communications, satellite phones and all the rest. When a crisis arises, because of the payments that the company has gotten over time, the Department of Defense can say: “It’s crisis time. We need our share.” And the [satellite operator] is required to bump their commercial customers and make these resources available to the warfighter. It may not translate exactly or directly. There are probably nuances, but it is a concept that should be considered.

Commercial space industry executives have been eager for more flexibility in government contracting for a long time.

Yes. That’s very clear. The commercial industry meets regularly with leadership within the Pentagon to discuss these issues. There is an awareness and an understanding of how annual procurements and buying things on the spot market don’t allow folks to plan for the long-term and have excess capacity available. Some of this, to be fair, is a result of congressional oversight and annual budgets, which constrain how we do business in the Department of Defense. But the fact of the matter is, this is too important.

This issue is getting attention just as the country prepares for a new presidential administration.

That’s the big concern. I got to know the folks that are working the policy pieces at the National Security Council and the Pentagon quite well over the nearly two years that I did that study. They are pleased, but not satisfied with, the progress they have made, and there are concerns with continuity. Money can be reallocated, reprogrammed and go somewhere else if there is another issue that gets everybody’s attention. That is another reason to consider a leadership role that ensures continuity over the long term, both on the civilian side in the Office of the Secretary of Defense, and on the military side. The good news is that no one knows the challenges in national security space more than Gen. John Hyten [head of U.S. Space Command], who is coming in to run U.S. Strategic Command. There is going to be some continuity on the military side. The uncertainty and the unknowable is, “How is this going to play out as the administration changes?”

Why is this topic getting so much attention right now?

Because the technology, both our own capabilities and the capabilities of potential adversaries, has grown much faster than any of us could have anticipated. We are much more reliant on space than we thought we would be. And the potential for others, should they choose to negate these capabilities, has also grown at an even faster rate. It is going to take a pretty rapid response to get ahead of all of this: to put in place the policies, strategies and fund the capabilities.

Rapid response is not the Defense Department’s forte.

It’s not. That could be considered a good thing. It needs to be deliberate. There are a lot of competing needs. It is hard to look at the global landscape today and say we are a lot safer and more secure than we were a decade ago. That is not a political judgment. There are a lot of competing demands out there when you are wrestling with what to do in Syria, how to deal with recidivism in Russia, how to handle the Middle East turmoil and this thing brewing in the South China Sea. There is a lot to distract people, but there is a space component to every one of those. That’s the thing that is hard for us to focus on.

Anything else you want to say?

I want to reaffirm my faith and confidence in the folks that have been doing this for decades and continue. A lot of folks have been out there building these systems that are the best the world has ever known. We built these things to be exquisite, literally. They were perfect and fragile, and as capable as we could make them because we thought that space was a sanctuary. Well, it is no longer a sanctuary.

So we’ve got to think our way through this. But I am confident we can, given the right attention, but most importantly, given the right leadership. People roll their eyes when they hear me talk about this, but I really do believe there are things only leaders can do. They can provide reassurance to allies and encouragement to those that are trying to make this better. You need somebody who is passionate about this, believes in its importance and believes not just that we have a problem, but that we can fix this as a nation.