Senators got their first look at how Barbara Barrett, the White House nominee to become the next Air Force secretary, would approach the space domain in a Sept. 12 hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Under her leadership, Barrett said the Air Force would focus on accelerating space acquisitions and defense capabilities under the increasing threat of adversaries in the space domain.
Barrett also expressed her support for the establishment of a Space Force, “a domain-specific service to organize, train, and equip space forces,” an organization she said was overdue.
A businesswoman and diplomat, Barrett is no stranger to the space domain. She served four terms as chair of the Aerospace Corp., a federally funded research and development center focused on space missions, and currently serves as the governance vice chairman of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory at Caltech. She has also received astronaut training and served as deputy administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration. Barrett was tapped for the nomination by President Donald Trump in May to succeed Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson.
While senators spent little time questioning the nominee about space capabilities during the hearing, written answers provided to the committee provided insight on the potential Air Force Secretary’s approach to the space domain. According to Barrett, U.S. space capabilities must be preserved as countries such as China and Russia pose an increasingly larger threat.
“All elements of American national power depend upon space. Our potential adversaries recognize this. China and Russia have taken actions to undermine our competitive advantage and impair our ability to meet alliance commitments,” said Barrett. “Moreover, both China and Russia continue to develop and field capabilities to disrupt, degrade and destroy U.S national security space assets, while deploying their own space capabilities to detect, track and attempt to defeat U.S. and allied forces. In my view, deterring a conflict in space must be a top priority; furthermore, should deterrence fail we must be prepared to fight and win.”
While China and Russia pose the biggest threats in space, Barrett said other nations such as Iran and North Korea were also developing space capabilities that could present a threat.
“Both the DPRK and Iran see the value of space and counterspace capabilities, including GPS and satellite jamming. We must anticipate that they would attempt to deny our use of space during a conflict,” said Barrett, pointing to a Defense Intelligence Agency report on threats to space that was released earlier this year. “Declining launch costs and improving small satellite technologies are also making space and space-enabled capabilities more accessible to actors and potential adversaries at all levels.”
According to the DIA report, both those nations have demonstrated satellite jamming capabilities. In answer to a different question, Barrett suggested the 2018 National Defense Strategy may not put enough emphasis on the importance of the space domain to national defense.
“The importance of space to our national defense may deserve more attention than given in the NDS. Reliable access to our space assets is essential to our national defense," she said.
Additionally, Barrett noted that the Air Force and the National Reconnaissance Office must continue to have a close relationship as they work together to develop and operate a national security space architecture. On Aug. 20, Joseph Maguire, acting director of national intelligence, announced that intelligence satellites would take orders from U.S. Space Command should a military conflict extend into space, breaking a long held norm that intelligence satellites would not fall under Pentagon control. Barrett touched on this briefly when asked specifically about the unity of command of DoD and intelligence community owned satellites.
“In time of conflict, basic warfighting principles including unity of command must prevail whatever the domain,” she explained. “Command relationships must be established prior to conflict and rehearsed with agencies outside of the Air Force.”
When it came to questions about acquisitions and moving space technology into the field faster, Barrett expressed interest in delegating more authority for acquisitions to the lowest feasible level, and use acquisition tools like Section 804 “that emphasize early prototyping to reduce risk and accelerate fielding.” She also expressed confidence in the Air Force Test and Evaluation Enterprise, the Air Force’s effort to test and prepare new systems for the air, space and cyberspace domains which is focused at the Air Force Operational Test and Evaluation Center.
“The Air Force Test and Evaluation Enterprise seems to have an outstanding capability. It continuously adapts to address emergent technologies and threats. Future opportunities exist for them to develop space, hypersonic, cybersecurity, directed energy and autonomous systems test capabilities,” she said.
In her opening remarks, Barrett focused on how essential space is for all aspects of modern life and why it is essential for the Air Force to help protect American space assets.
“Most Americans use space before their first cup of coffee in the morning,” said Barrett. “Space controls our electricity, our water, our financial transactions and of course navigation, information and communication. While space is ubiquitous, it is also invisible and often underappreciated. American national power depends upon space--and our potential adversaries know it. We must be prepared to defend critical space assets, increase the resilience of our space enterprise, and be prepared to fight and win should deterrence fail.”
Nathan Strout covers space, unmanned and intelligence systems for C4ISRNET.