Pentagon Shake-Up Won't Affect Space Force, Acting SecAF Says

Acting Secretary of the Air Force Matthew Donovan addresses attendees at the opening ceremony at the USA Partnership Pavilion during the Paris Air Show, June 17, 2019. (U.S. Air Force photo/Eric Burks)
Acting Secretary of the Air Force Matthew Donovan addresses attendees at the opening ceremony at the USA Partnership Pavilion during the Paris Air Show, June 17, 2019. (U.S. Air Force photo/Eric Burks)

SALON DU BOURGET, PARIS -- The U.S. Air Force doesn't foresee the Pentagon's Space Force proposal undergoing any major shifts in the short term following news that Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan will vacate his role at the end of this week, the service's top civilian said Wednesday.

President Donald Trump said via Twitter on Tuesday that Army Secretary Mark Esper will take over as acting Pentagon chief. Shanahan’s revelation that he would not pursue the nomination came after multiple news reports surfaced of an FBI investigation into two reportedly violent domestic episodes in 2010 and 2011.

Acting Air Force Secretary Matt Donovan said he doesn’t believe the shake-up will affect the Space Force, the newest U.S. military branch, which is expected to fall under the Department of the Air Force.

That's because the Air Force has been heavily involved in its creation.

"I know [Esper] is fully supportive of the administration" on Space Force, Donovan said during an interview with here at the Paris Air Show. "I certainly think that the Air Force should be consulted and will continue to be consulted. We've been engaged and involved in the conversations."

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Shanahan had overseen the initial reports and studies on Space Force as well as the ultimate proposal to stand up the new service, first as deputy defense secretary and then as acting SecDef.

Before Trump signed the policy greenlighting the first steps to create Space Force within the Air Force in February, it was reported that Shanahan was already consulting with the Air Force for support. Although he allegedly clashed with then-Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson over the need for a space-only branch, he ultimately put her in charge of an architect team for the new organization. Wilson left the job last month to take a university position.

"The Air Force has 95% of the national security space assets that we operate," Donovan said Wednesday. "So [Defense Department officials] come to us as the experts on space."

Donovan, a former staff member for the Senate Armed Services Committee, is confident there will be synergy between the Air Force and Space Force once the new organization -- one he's advocated for in the past -- takes shape.

"I personally think that we do need an independent Space Force," he said. "I've actually advocated for it for over 20 years. I wrote a paper 20 years ago advocating for an independent Space Force."

Donovan said things are still fluid from a legislative standpoint. The Senate Armed Services Committee is pushing ahead with plans that largely deliver what the Pentagon wants, but the new service's top officer likely won't sit on the Joint Chiefs of Staff -- at least not right away. On the House side, the proposed organizational structure for the Space Force differs slightly, with lawmakers dropping the "Force" name in favor of a "Space Corps" within the Air Force.

"It's sorta in Congress' hands now," he said. "I mean, the administration's proposal is very clear on how we thought it should go, and so we'll see where it goes from there as we get toward conference."

Donovan spoke at length about a number of topics, from what he's prioritizing in his acting role, to how far the Air Force has come since he was an F-15C Eagle pilot. His comments have been edited for clarity and brevity.

Q: Shanahan last month sent a memo to lawmakers in the House and Senate about a proposal limiting what top brass tells Congress about operational plans and orders. The Air Force is working on a lot of classified programs, such as the B-21 Raider. Has that memo been expanded to apply not just to operations but to what you can tell lawmakers about highly sensitive programs?

A: It hasn't at all. We were very transparent with the committees, the committees of jurisdiction [on defense issues]. And any member of the committee can be fully briefed whenever they want on any of the programs that fall within their jurisdiction. Outside of a committee member … then it does take the committee chairman to authorize them to be that.

Q: Where is the Air Force on making a decision on where to place the U.S. Space Command base headquarters?

A: We have teams that are going out that'll do site surveys on each [base] and gather more information. I think there's a little bit of pressure on this [SPACECOM] to get stood up a little more quickly, but that doesn't mean that we're going to skip any steps that we normally do in the process, when you just may prioritize them a little bit higher.

Q: The Air Force has heard the message to do business faster, especially from lawmakers. Were you surprised to see that some lawmakers don't want the service to move ahead as quickly with some acquisition programs -- using 804 authorities, requiring studies first? [Middle Tier Acquisition (Section 804) is a rapid acquisition approach that streamlines how the service does business with the defense industry.]

A: It's a little bit surprising because … Congress is not always homogenous in the way they view issues, including defense issues. I worked [in] the Senate Armed Services Committee and did a lot of the reforms. What we're seeing is, the [pushback] is not so much on the Senate side because of their longevity in the seats, but with the House, [there's] a lot of new members. They weren't there as we were bringing some of these reforms on board, so it's natural that they would have a lot of questions. We are getting a little bit of mixed message of, 'We want you to go faster, but … maybe not so fast when it comes to [804].' But I understand, because they have a constitutional responsibility of oversight policy and guidance. So we'll continue to work with them.

Q: We've heard a lot from the Air Force on "family of systems" and networked approach these last few months. What does that mean for moving forward with sixth-gen technologies, and a potential sixth-gen fighter?

A: One of the initiatives I started as the undersecretary was "Digital Air Force," and "Digital Air Force" is akin to what [Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein] has been talking about: The highways versus the trucks. Trucks are the platforms, and instead of being platform-centric, we want to get the highway, which is the network. Digital Air Force consists of three elements: First is robust IT infrastructure to be able to handle the large amounts of data. Secondly is to have data standards and data architecture in place so that we can create a "data lake" for … airmen to be able to get information where and when they need it. Third, is to take a look at our business information processes. We want to create a data stream, so that when people need it, they're able to just hook into it. This is foundational for advanced battle management system or multi-domain command and control.

Q: Then-Deputy Secretary of Defense Bob Work touted similar multi-domain information processes years ago. What's different now?

A: We're actually moving out on this. We recognize we have to have the data. For example, one of the markers that I've thrown out there is that I don't want an airman to ever make a PowerPoint chart again. And what that means is, why don't we get real-time information that can be displayed on dashboards for senior leader decisions that provide wisdom and knowledge rather than just data and information? You have to have that data. It's a prerequisite for artificial intelligence or machine learning and all those sorts of things. So it's foundational for us.

Q: You were once an airman, and a pilot. How have you seen the service evolve?

A: The biggest thing is the explosion of information technology. When I first started flying airplane[s], our primary reference was to look at a map and look at the curriculum. Nowadays, we have young airmen that are coming in that are digital natives. They expect to get their information by hitting an application on a smartphone that they currently have, and they have instant communication around the world, to friends or the businesses or whatever they need to do. And we need to take advantage of that generation who have grown up that way. We need to translate that into military capabilities.

Q: Having flown the Eagle, what are your thoughts on the potential for the F-15E X derivative to come into the inventory?

A: I am partial to F-15. ... It all kind of goes back to the F-22, which was designed to replace all the F-15Cs. That was the same mission. I'm not gonna revisit the decisions on stopping the F-22 line prior to the amount of airplanes that we needed. But because of that fact, the F-15C, we had to keep them on board much longer than they were ever meant to be in their service life. They need to be replaced, and we can't just replace them with wholesale F-35s. It was never meant to replace the F-15C. So I think it's a really great airplane -- the F-15EX with the capabilities it has [which are] so far advanced. So am I excited? I'm probably a little excited.

Q: How do you respond to critics who say buying a fourth-plus gen aircraft is going backward instead of looking to the future?

A: I think it's important to say that we're not going to trade a single F-35 for an F-15 because it's not the same capability. [But] between the advanced capabilities of advanced electronically scanned-array radars, advancements in electronic protection, electronic attack, advancements in digital fly-by wire controls and even advanced engine technology, I don't really think it's stepping back.

Q: What are you getting from this air show in terms of seeing new capabilities? What's your message here, and what has impressed you?

A: I think the message is if we want to go forward as interoperable coalition partners, then you should look at U.S. industry because we've got those tools to offer. The [Paris Air Show] offers us an opportunity to take three or four days for a really focused effort to do discussions with industry, to see some of their new ideas that they're bringing on board and then also do bilateral discussions. I've heard that there are 80 air forces represented at this show, with 43 air chiefs. That's incredible to have all that in one place. [I've been impressed by], on the first day, watching all the French airplanes that are flying. I mean, they're very good airplanes. And I think ... with our allies that we see moving forward [on next-gen fighter jets] that competition is a good thing.

-- Oriana Pawlyk can be reached at Follow her on Twitter at @Oriana0214.

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