LE BOURGET, France — Now that Heather Wilson is no longer secretary of the U.S. Air Force, expect service leadership to hew much closer to the Defense Department’s perspective on the overhaul of military space organizations that includes the launch of a Space Force.
“I can tell you one thing: I’ve always supported the necessity of an independent Space Force,” said acting Air Force Secretary Matt Donovan, who before this month held the undersecretary position. “In fact, I wrote papers over 20 years ago advocating for an independent Space Force.”
During an exclusive June 19 interview on the sidelines of the Paris Air Show, Donovan expressed support for the administration’s plan, including its position on keeping the Space Force inside the Department of the Air Force.
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He also said he backed the creation of the Space Development Agency, or SDA —a new Defense Department organization tasked with creating a distributed constellation of many small satellites in low-Earth orbit.
“How we’re approaching it is that if someone wants to build a mesh network of inter-networked communications satellites, that’s absolutely foundational with what we’re trying to do with our advanced battle management system, which will lead us to multidomain command and control,” said Donovan, who has had conversations about the new organization with SDA head Fred Kennedy as well as Mike Griffin, undersecretary of research and engineering.
“If someone wants to concentrate on doing that, we’re all about helping them do that so that we can leverage those capabilities for things we need not just in the Air Force, but across the entire joint force,” he added.
Donovan’s support constitutes a break from his predecessor, Wilson, who departed in May after two years as the Air Force’s top civilian. She fiercely opposed the SDA, and many believed was she quietly trying to thwart the Space Force even while expressing support in public.
While President Donald Trump has tweeted his intention to nominate former Aerospace Corporation Chairwoman Barbara Barrett as secretary of the Air Force, a formal nomination has not been sent to Congress to begin the approval process.
And with the focus on finding a new defense secretary to nominate after Patrick Shanahan resigned from the Pentagon and pulled out of the running, Donovan could have months at the helm of the Air Force before Barrett is confirmed.
It is clear that, in that time, the Air Force is hoping to distance itself from Wilson’s sometimes combative stances on space reorganization.
John Stopher, who was Wilson’s lead policy adviser on space issues, tendered his resignation Tuesday, effective July 19, “in order to return to the public sector,” according to Stopher’s letter to Trump, which was first reported by Space News.
Multiple sources told Defense News last week that Stopher would be removed from his post at the behest of Air Force leaders who wanted to break from Wilson’s space policies. The sources pointed to Stopher’s role in helming Wilson’s public comments on the space enterprise reorganization, and they said he was a dominant force in slow rolling Space Force-related policies.
For instance, Stopher ordered the two-star general charged with coming up with the Space Force implementation plan, Maj. Gen. Clinton Crosier, to not speak to anyone on Capitol Hill, preventing him from answering questions from lawmakers and staffers, one source said. He also started meeting privately with officials from think tanks and other influential organizations to try to make the case that a Space Force wasn’t needed, that source said.
Donovan downplayed Stopher’s resignation as anything out of the ordinary.
“I appreciate all of John’s service. He was very supportive of Secretary Wilson’s agenda for space, and we appreciate his service,” Donovan said.
“We certainly want to make sure that everyone knows that we support the administration’s proposal for the Space Force. I don’t think you can tie that directly with John Stopher[‘s] [resignation],” Donovan added. “It’s just not unusual for appointees of one leader to depart. … That’s just sort of the normal progress of occurrences with personnel.”
The Defense Department has proposed creating a Space Force within the Department of the Air Force, which would be led by a four-star general and would be part of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, as well as an undersecretary of the Space Force that would report to the Air Force secretary.
Although questions remain unanswered about the size and makeup of the Space Force, it seems almost certain a new service for space will be set up inside the Air Force.
In its version of the defense policy bill, the Senate Armed Services Committee voted to fully fund the Space Force, albeit with a somewhat different organizational structure than the one proposed by the administration.
Meanwhile, the House Armed Services Committee voted to establish a Space Corps within the Department of the Air Force, with a four-star commandant on the Joint Chiefs, and a civilian secretary. The name and setup of the service closely mirrors the original “Space Corps” idea that House Strategic Forces Subcommittee Chairman Jim Cooper, D-Tenn., and Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Ala., proposed two years ago.
Donovan said that while lawmakers are “really early in the process,” the support from the Armed Services committees is a good sign.
“I think the really good news is that both of them recognize the necessity for space reorganization and they’re both moving in that direction. The way Congress works, it will be a process of compromise and back and forth as they do those discussions, and we’re going to be there to support and answer questions and give our opinions if asked.”
Valerie Insinna is Defense News' air warfare reporter. She previously worked the Navy/congressional beats for Defense Daily, which followed almost three years as a staff writer for National Defense Magazine. Prior to that, she worked as an editorial assistant for the Tokyo Shimbun’s Washington bureau.