Acting Air Force Secretary Matt Donovan: “Let’s unleash the space professionals.”
WASHINGTON — In the weeks since he became acting secretary of the Air Force, Matthew Donovan has used his bully pulpit to advocate for the establishment of a separate space service. With Congress just weeks away from taking decisive action on the issue, Donovan said he will continue to press the case on Capitol Hill.
“Let’s unleash the space professionals so they can grow and become the equivalent of the Air Force after separating from the Army,” Donovan said July 3 in an interview with SpaceNews.
Space forces today are at that point where the Air Force was in 1947 when it broke away from the Army, Donovan said. Just like military aviation back then, space is ready to carve out its own lane. “When the Air Force separated from the Army, we became a global power because we were unleashed from other ways of thinking,” said Donovan. “Space is in that same place now.”
Donovan’s views on a separate space service might come as a surprise, as he never publicly discussed the subject during the past two years while serving as undersecretary of the Air Force. Donovan took over as the Air Force’s interim civilian leader June 1 after the departure of former secretary Heather Wilson.
Wilson and then secretary of defense Jim Mattis in 2017 pushed back on House-backed legislation to create a Space Corps, but changed their stance after President Trump in June 2018 directed DoD to form a separate military service for space. “When the president said to do it, that was different than providing feedback to the Congress,” said Donovan. “There was a little bit of a shift there.” He said he did not air his views on space while he was the undersecretary because Wilson was the service’s public face on the issue.
Early proponent of space
Donovan was commissioned into the Air Force in 1982 and served as a fighter pilot. As a major at the Air Force School of Advanced Airpower Studies in 1997 he wrote a paper titled “The Evolution of Airpower Theory” in which he argued that space should have its own organization. “The rate of technological advances in space is comparatively far slower than that of aviation, leaving significant hurdles to overcome,” Donovan wrote. “Obtaining actual space superiority with space assets is simply not possible given present capabilities … Further enhancement of the development and aims of space power requires the formation of an independent space force.”
After retiring from active duty as a colonel in 2008, Donovan held private sector jobs, then worked as a civilian in the Department of the Air Force and as a professional staff member for the Senate Armed Services Committee before returning to the Pentagon as undersecretary in 2017.
Donovan now wants to leave no doubt on where he stands on the issue of an independent space service.
As interim secretary, Donovan is closely involved in ongoing negotiations with congressional committees on the space reorganization. Wilson had a principal assistant for space — John Stopher, who will be stepping down July 19 — and that job for the time being will be filled by space policy deputy Shawn Barnes. Donovan insists that the leadership transition in DoD and the Air Force will not slow things down. Acting secretary of defense Mark Esper told DoD leaders that there is “no change in priorities or change in focus of the department, it’s just a change in leadership,” Donovan said.
The president announced on May 21 he intends to nominate former U.S. ambassador Barbara Barrett as Air Force secretary. Donovan said he called her to congratulate her and “had a good discussion about the way ahead.” But Donovan is not involved in the transition or in Barrett’s preparations for her Senate confirmation hearing, which is handled by the office of the secretary of defense. According to DoD sources, Barrett’s nomination paperwork is moving forward but there still no set set date for her Senate hearing.
Donovan said he expects to be on Capitol Hill quite frequently in the coming weeks to answer questions from committees as they figure out a possible compromise between the House and Senate versions of the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2020. Each has proposed a different approach to organizing a Space Corps (House bill) and a Space Force (Senate bill).
“There are a couple of things that are really very promising,” said Donovan. “Both recognize that we need some sort of space force or corps. And both recognize that the best place to keep it is in the Department of the Air Force.”
Donovan will continue to push for the administration’s proposal to create a U.S. Space Force, even though Congress has rejected many aspects of the proposal. DoD’s plan has two four-star generals and a civilian undersecretary of the Air Force for space leading the new service. It also assumes DoD will have authorities to transfer personnel and resources from other services to the Space Force. Neither the House nor the Senate is onboard with that. Both criticized the DoD proposal for overreaching and for creating an expensive top-heavy bureaucracy.
“We do understand it’s a system of compromises,” said Donovan. “We’ll make sure they have all the information they need, especially as they go into conference. Our folks are engaged almost daily with professional staff members.”
Donovan wishes Congress weren’t so focused on the cost of a space service. “I think we went down the wrong path immediately drawing attention to the cost,” he said. Although he did not mention Wilson’s cost analysis specifically, Donovan suggested that he disagreed with the $13 billion estimate she put forth in September, which drew congressional ire.
He questioned past estimates that included the cost of people moving into the Space Force but who were already being paid by other services. That should be cost neutral, he said. “Numbers got conflated and inflated and it wasn’t all that accurate a way of doing it.”
Donovan believes the cost should be viewed under a different light. “Immediately snapping to the question of cost misses the whole point that our adversaries are rapidly catching up to us,” he said. “How about the cost of losing a war? That may be the cost we should be talking about.”
Congress has voiced deep concerns about how the new service will be funded and what the long term costs will be, something that remains unclear to this day. The Congressional Budget Office in a recent report projected a Space Corps will cost $3.6 billion over five years, but noted that many future expenses can’t be pinned down yet because the organization has not been fully mapped out.
Donovan has been trying to steer the cost conversation in a different direction, casting the Space Force as an opportunity to stand up a leaner organization that doesn’t have to follow in the footsteps of the larger military services.
“Why don’t we take the opportunity to create a 21st century force that is built for the information age?” he said. There are those who will argue that the Space Force has to fit within the existing military structure and can’t play by different rules, said Donovan, but he begs to differ. “Maybe the Space Force is a pathfinder for a new way of doing business in DoD,” he said. “Maybe we don’t need a bloated staff, maybe we need to be faster and resilient and agile by being small and flat,” he said. “Our services are organized around a Napoleonic form of warfare and have been, because that has been the tradition. It may be time to break that mold.”
Space will be a small branch compared to the others, “so maybe we don’t need to set up a staff that’s like other staffs. That’s the message we’re trying to get across,” said Donovan. “We’re more than willing to work with Congress in order to make that happen.”
Space acquisitions under scrutiny
Lawmakers have hammered DoD and the Air Force over the cost and management of space acquisitions. Defense committees have been especially critical of the sluggish pace of procurement programs and the lack of coordination across multiple organizations that handle space systems. The Senate NDAA would break up the office of the top Air Force acquisition executive and create a new position of principal assistant to the secretary of the Air Force for acquisition and integration. The space post also would be subject to Senate confirmation.
Donovan pointed out that the Air Force never proposed a reorganization of its acquisition office but understands why lawmakers support it. If the Space Corps follows the Marine Corps model, the Marines don’t have a separate service acquisition executive, he said. The Marine Corps, however, “doesn’t need to integrate across many space organizations either … I sort of understand the rationale. I just want to make sure that whatever we come out with is executable for us, and achieves the objective to increase the speed of getting equipment to the warfighter.” Donovan said the Air Force can no longer afford to take 10 to 12 years to develop systems that are outdated before they are even fielded.
A legislative solution to expedite acquisition programs was provided by Congress in the 2016 NDAA, which gave DoD special authorities to bypass regulations when developing systems that use mature technologies. Donovan was on the staff of the Senate Armed Services Committee when the committee spearheaded these so-called Section 804 authorities and secured support from the House.
The House Armed Services Committee is now challenging the Pentagon’s use of Section 804 and is introducing language in this year’s NDAA to increase oversight of programs started under these authorities. One of the targeted programs is an $11 billion missile warning satellite constellation called next-generation Overhead Persistent Infrared, or next-gen OPIR.
The Air Force wants to start launching these satellites by 2025 but needs Congress to shift $632 million from future budgets into the 2019 budget. Some members of Congress are now questioning the use of Section 804 authorities for a program that size.
Donovan said there are new members in the House who are not familiar with the history of Section 804 and how it’s helped DoD. “I consider it an education challenge,” he said. ‘We need to engage with new members who were not around four years ago. I certainly understand they have to perform oversight. We have to assure them that this doesn’t cut any corners on their oversight.”
Congress also has demanded a clear explanation of why the Air Force is investing billions of dollars in the next-gen OPIR system while at the same time the Space Development Agency is planning to develop a missile warning constellation as part of a broader architecture to be built using commercial satellites in low Earth orbit. The concept of a “proliferated LEO” system has been advocated by undersecretary of defense for research and engineering Mike Griffin.
Donovan said there is some confusion about who is doing what, and both him and Griffin will be meeting with congressional committees on the subject. “I’ve been working closely with Mike Griffin and SDA,” said Donovan. “Dr. Griffin fully acknowledges that proliferated LEO is not the only answer. He understands we have to have a balanced approach,” he said. “We are both going to go to the Hill and talk about that.”
U.S. combatant commands have told Air Force leaders that they need next-gen OPIR satellites to be in operation by 2025, said Donovan. “That’s driving our timelines. What we have to convince Congress of is that we need reprogramming in order to meet that timeline.” The discussion got complicated because next-gen OPIR got conflated with the use of 804 authorities, said Donovan. “We’re hitting this as a two prong attack.” The Air Force and DoD have to assure Congress that Section 804 authorities are not being abused, and also make the case to lawmakers that the reprogramming of funds for next-gen OPIR is a national security priority.