Ignatius: Thank you very much every for coming to this latest installment of Securing Tomorrow. It’s really my pleasure to have as our guest today Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson. As I’m going to explain, Secretary Wilson has pretty much the ultimate Washington and certainly Air Force secretary resume. Just briefly to go through it, she was a graduate of the Air Force Academy in 1982. I think that was the third year that women graduated from the academy, so she was one of the very first women to graduate as an Air Force cadet. And like any Air Force cadet, she wanted to fly planes. She had one problem, which was that she won a Rhodes Scholarship. [LAUGHTER] And so she went to Oxford and got her doctorate in 1985?
Ignatius: So that’s one of the most distinguished tokens that I think of. She then served with the Air Force in various positions in Europe, came back during the Bush 41—George H.W. Bush Administration and worked in the NSC staff, one of the most exciting times in terms of foreign policy that we’ve had. Left Washington and the Air Force to go form her own defense company. After that, worked in state government doing public social service work, then ran for Congress and was a member of Congress for 10 years, then ran a university, specializing in technology, and is now back as secretary of the Air Force.
So an unusually talented person with special expertise so it’s really a pleasure to have you here. I want to start with the issue that is really preoccupying the Pentagon and in particular, the Air Force and that’s the threat that we’re seeing to our defense assets in space. We have this image of space as the area where NASA had its incredible missions and we kind of know that we have all of these communication satellites up in space. If we think about it, we know that the Defense Department has a lot its capabilities in space. But I’d ask you to lead us off by talking about what in recent years we have come to understand about the threats that exist in space in a way in which space is now a warfighting domain.
Wilson: Yeah, in 2007, the Chinese launched a direct ascent anti-satellite weapon and destroyed one of their own dead weather satellites, it created a huge amount of debris on orbit. But they demonstrated the ability to do that. But it’s not only that. I think the director of National Intelligence acknowledged publicly earlier this year that they’re developing the capability to try to jam satellites, dazzle satellites, and deny us the use of satellites in crisis or war. And they’re doing that because we’re really good at it. We’ve been very good at it and we’re the best in the world at space and we have been since the 1950s and they’ve watched us. There’s not a mission today that we do in the military that doesn’t in some way depend upon space, but we built that architecture in space at a time when it was benign. And now so, you know, we built the glass houses before the invention of stones. So now, we have to adjust and make sure that we can defend what we do in space and deter anyone from challenging us there.
Ignatius: So if I am to understand your point about building glass houses before stones, we have a Defense architecture in space through which we project power around the world that’s fundamentally vulnerable today. Would that be an accurate statement?
Wilson: It is vulnerable, but I may need to explain a little bit about what we do. The Air Force has most of the Defense Department’s space assets. The Navy has some. They have about 12 satellites that they use for some special communications. We have 77 satellites we operate around the globe. Of those 77, 31 are global positioning system satellites so that your blue dot on your phone is provided by the United States Air Force. It’s provided by 40 airmen working in Schriever Air Force Base in Colorado Springs, Colorado.
Ignatius: Thank you. Thank you, Air Force. [LAUGHTER]
Wilson: So remember that when you—
Ignatius: We wouldn’t know what to do with that, then.
Wilson: So a global positioning system, weather satellites, communication satellites, including secure communication so that the president can be in touch with his forces with anywhere in the world if he needs to be. And we provide that service to combatant commanders. So those are the things we have and yes, they are—satellites are really pretty fragile thing and so we have to think now about how do we defend the constellation? And it’s not always just direct defense. It may be that we distribute a network. So if you have multiple nodes, it’s inherently more resilient than if you’re relying on one thing. Some of it may be maneuverability. Some of it may be deception. So there’s a variety of ways to make sure that the United States can take a punch and keep on operating.
Ignatius: Let me, before we go any further, invite the audience here and if we have a streaming audience on television, to ask questions, which I’ll see on my little iPad. The hashtag is SecuringTomorrow. So if you have a question for Secretary Wilson as our conversation goes forward, please use that hashtag, #SecuringTomorrow. So Madam Secretary, the problem that we’re facing as I understand it from reading what’s in the literature is that our principal adversaries, Russia and China, have already jumped into space, are already in the process of militarizing space. This is not a future challenge; this is a challenge right now, today. And I’d ask you tell us as much as you can—these are tricky, sensitive areas, but as much as you can about what’s already happened, that the American people can understand what’s already vulnerable.
Wilson: Well, as I mentioned, the Chinese demonstrated the ability to launch a rocket, so they have a—launch a telephone pole and hit an object in low-Earth orbit and destroy it. That was a pretty significant demonstration. And so there are other things that we believe they’re developing the ability to do. For example, publicly reported, TASS, the Russian news agency last summer, said that the Russians were launching the ability to repair their satellites on orbit. Well, if they can repair their own, they could also interfere—
Ignatius: They could repair ours.
Wilson: Yeah. So I think that’s probably what’s publicly discussed, where I’d feel comfortable going, David, but we believe that they are developing those capabilities and that we need to be prepared to defend ourselves.
Ignatius: Is it possible that there are already weapons up there in space that are not on the ground trying to get ready to shoot something down, but up there in space already that could pose a threat?
Wilson: I believe that’s possible.
Ignatius: So that’s an important baseline for us to think about, that it’s already possible that our near-peer adversaries have these weapons in space. This is a situation where we’re trying to now respond to that. So let me ask you to talk a little bit more about your thoughts about how best to respond. The satellites that we put up—because we didn’t think about this as a warfighting domain are soft. What about just hardening satellites, so they would be better able to resist the detonation of weapons, nuclear or otherwise, in space?
Wilson: Just think about the problem. First of all, you need to understand the threat. What are the capabilities they’re developing? And for example, it’s different on our different satellites systems. So I mentioned GPS. GPS is actually a really weak radio signal. From four different satellites at the same time, it does a heck of a lot of math and tells you how far you are from each of those satellites by the timing signal coming off those satellites. We use the timing signal, by the way, also for the ATM machine so you can’t take money out of two ATM machines at exactly the same time, so you don’t get double the credit from your bank. We do that from GPS. So the biggest risk to GPS is jamming because it’s a really weak signal so you think about—for those of you who have teenagers who play their music really loud, you can’t hear the whisper next to the loud noise. So jamming is the biggest risk there.
So how are we going to deal with that? The Air Force is accelerating the deployment of jam-resistant GPS. So on some of our other satellites, the threats may be different. So how do we deal with that? The first thing we need is near real-time situational awareness. Now, right now, we keep the catalog—the Air Force keeps the catalog for all objects in space greater than about the size of a softball. And it’s not good enough now to just check them every week; we need to know, are they moving? And if so, where are they going? So it’s a little bit—instead of a catalog—or let’s take a flight analogy. Instead of knowing the flight schedule coming into Reagan Airport today, you’d need the radar scanning to know exactly where that airplane is right now and where you think this is going.
So near real-time situational awareness is the first thing. The second is the ability to command and control the things we have in space. Make them move, make them do things so that they can protect themselves. So command and control is the second and the third is the ability to create effects. In other words, get out of the way. Take some action and I won’t go into detail there, but you can have the same analogy in the aerospace. If somebody sends a missile at one of our aircraft, well, we might use chaff and flairs. We might maneuver out of the way. There’s a lot of different ways to think about defending yourself. So space situational awareness, near real-time, the ability to command and control, and the ability to create effects. And those things oriented toward the threat are the way that we’re trying to make space a defendable domain.
Ignatius: And let me ask about a final kind of defense that’s most familiar to us. When we think about significant military assets in any other domain, we think about attack weapon systems that would accompany us, that would accompany them. So you wouldn’t have a carrier task force that didn’t have fighter jets that could provide air cover and other assets that could protect those big, expensive systems. Is there a good analogy for that in space? Do you think, in effect, attack satellites that would accompany our precious communications in other satellites? Is that something that we should be thinking about?
Wilson: Well, I think the United States is determined to protect our capability on orbit. We’re going to defend ourselves and we’re developing the capability to do that, and I think probably going beyond that, this is not just a conversation among us. Our adversaries listen to what I say, too. And I want them to have no doubt that if they seek to contest the United States in space, that we will defend ourselves.
Ignatius: All right, adversaries, it’s #SecuringTomorrow. [LAUGHTER] Don’t send questions. [LAUGHTER] So let me come to the question of what to do about this threat, which you’ve described well. In the sense of how to organize for it, this has been a big issue that you’ve been thinking about now for many months. The president in June at a speech at a space forum said that he wanted to create a space force he said that would be separate but equal to the Air Force. The Pentagon, as I understand it, is studying this and it will complete a feasibility study next month, the first of two. But tell us, if you can, about that process of studying this idea. I think one thing we worry about is the possible bureaucratic and other costs that could delay response to this very serious and immediate real-time challenge. How should we think about how to organize for this?
Wilson: One of the things, to put this in context, when I was going through the process of confirmation, my opening statement had to be approved by the then—and I was only the second one approved in the Defense Department, so I had to go around the interagency and most of the people were people who were here from before and they actually took out the sentence in my statement that referred to space as a warfighting domain. So that was a little more than a year ago. Couldn’t even say “space” and “warfighting” in the same sentence. We now have the president, the vice president, the reestablishment of a National Space Council. We have a national space strategy, a national defense strategy that both recognize those and in this year’s president’s budget, the fiscal year ‘19 budget increased and accelerated defendable space with $7 billion in addition to the base budget and reprogrammed another $5 billion within the budget to accelerate defendable space.
Both the chief of staff and I are actually very glad that this is now becoming—people are becoming more aware and having a debate about what do we do about this as a nation? And that just wasn’t really there before, and I think it’s tremendously helpful as we advance what we’re trying to do to defend our assets on orbit. For me, one of the biggest issues is how do we accelerate acquisition? How do we move the Pentagon forward quickly? Because there’s a huge bureaucracy around the acquisition and we’re doing a number of things to be able—not just in space, but more generally to accelerate acquisitions.
Ignatius: I want to come back to acquisition in a moment because that’s been a key area that you’ve focused on and one where you’ve tried to innovate. But just before we leave this question of the president’s desire to do more in space. If I hear you, you’re saying, “We couldn’t agree more.”
Ignatius: The question is how best to organize for that. Are there any thoughts you’d offer us about the transition and transitional issues? I’ve studied enough military history to see that when we make these transitions, they can sometimes be pretty bumpy. When the Air Force was initially created out of the Army Air Corps, that was not easy.
Wilson: Brilliant idea, by the way.
Ignatius: Well, the Marine Corps goes way back in our history so it’s not as relevant an idea. But when missiles first came in, there was a terrible food fight between the Army and the Air Force about who should run the missile program to the point that the Army missile commander locked out the Air Force general, wouldn’t let him come into his base. So there’s a history here. As you look at this, what would be your sort of cautionary points about the things that could end up hurting us if we’re not careful as we make the transition?
Wilson: I think the most important thing is to stay focused on the warfighter and maintaining the lethality of the service, no matter how the org chart boxes go, it’s all about the ability to fight and if we keep focused on that and not on which boxes move around in which place in the Pentagon, then we’ll do the right thing for the nation. So focus on the lethality of the force. To me, that’s the most important thing.
Ignatius: And if that’s primary, that will then drive the decisions in a sensible way?
Wilson: It will.
Ignatius: So I want to talk a little bit about a favorite topic of mine and that’s new weapons technologies, the weapon systems that are just over the horizon that often people don’t know about but that are interesting and also pose some often-interesting dilemmas about what’s appropriate, what’s affordable. And let me start with one that’s been in the news a little bit, and that’s hypersonic aircraft. Hypersonic aircraft I think are defined as those that can fly at Mach 5 or—
Wilson: Five or six, yeah.
Ignatius: So, you know, they’re just an order of magnitude faster than anything that we now see. And hypersonic aircraft are of interest in part because according to our former PACOM commander, Admiral Harry Harris, I’m quoting him, “Back in February, China’s hypersonic weapons development outpaces ours. We’re falling behind.” They were already pretty far along in testing these things. So tell this audience a little bit, Madam Secretary, about how hypersonic technology works, why it has military advantages, and what we think the Chinese and Russians have already done?
Wilson: Interesting question. First, it’s not actually hypersonic aircraft we’re looking at right now, it’s hypersonic weapons. So think more about cruise missile analogy rather than aircraft. Although I did recently see an article that someone’s coming back with the idea of a very fast commercial aircraft again, which will be interesting. But so hypersonic, five to six times the speed of sound. The advantage it gives you militarily is you combine speed with precision and range. They’re very difficult to defend against because they’re moving so fast.
Ignatius: Would our existing anti-missile technology be ineffective against something moving that fast through space?
Wilson: It’s a difficult problem because of speed and size, but it’s also a difficult technical problem to get them to work. The temperatures, the aerodynamics are extremely difficult technical problems. What the military has done and this is actually kind of interesting—this just happened in the last few weeks here, is the service secretary—as we get together for breakfast now every couple of weeks and we talk about things we can do together. One of our first meetings, we talked about science and technology and where we were and identified this as a high-priority project to work together. Because we each had pieces of programs. The Army’s warhead had worked much better than the Air Force’s. The Navy would have to scope that down in diameter, which takes longer. We came up with a memorandum of understanding. We’ve got all of our people working together doing best technology. So we’re going to take the Army warhead, put it on an Air Force booster, launch it off of a B-52 while the Army is developing on the ground and the Navy wants to put it on the deck of a ship.
This kind of collaboration will accelerate testing and deployment by several years and I think that that kind of cooperation is—people tell me in the Pentagon it’s not supposed to work that way, that the service secretaries aren’t supposed to get along that well, but we do and we think that we can accelerate the prototyping and testing of a hypersonic weapon by several years. So we’re talking 2021, 2020, possibly to test.
Ignatius: 2020, you could test a prototype?
Wilson: Weapon, yeah.
Ignatius: That is fast and I must say, the idea of the Army, Navy, and Air Force working collaboratively on any new weapon system, that would be—
Wilson: Except for football. We don’t—we have a big rivalry there.
Ignatius: We’re not expecting a joint Army-Navy-Air Force team anytime soon. Another area of technology, which is one that the United States has possessed—I want to say unique advantages and that’s been crucial for the Air Force is stealth technology that allows our planes, drones, et cetera, to pass pretty much unobserved by radar waves. And reading—I have a particular interest in quantum technology because I recently wrote a novel about the Chinese efforts to beat us at the race to develop quantum computers. I noted recently that the Chinese say they’re working on “quantum radars,” which would have, if they could be made to work, enormous advantages because they would, in effect, split photons and see with light what you couldn’t see with radar waves.
So it’s potentially a very significant breakthrough that could render a lot of our stealth technology vulnerable. And I want to ask you, is this—a lot of the stuff that comes out of China, I think is kind of overhyped. It’s not as far along as the reports imply. What’s your sense about this development?
Wilson: I think the Chinese particularly are seeking to deny us advantages where they see we do have advantages and one of them clearly is in low-observable technology. We’re really good at it. We never take it for granted and we are always looking at how do we improve our low-observable technology, what new capabilities might be out there that could reduce the advantage of it or make it more vulnerable and to try to stay ahead of that. One of the things that the chief of staff talks about, you can see a low-observable plane, even with radar you can, but obviously, with the naked eye, you can. But no country can put a block of wood around their country and kind of set it on the map and make it impenetrable. At best, it’s Swiss cheese and it’s really more like fondue because the bubbles move [LAUGHTER]. Our job is to find the bubbles and exploit them when we need to. And we don’t need to all the time.
For example, if a carrier strike group is coming through the Straits of Hormuz, we need air superiority over them for the time in which they transit. We don’t need it continuously, 365 days a year. So we are constantly looking at the fondue from an airspace point of view and how we continue to be able to dominate when and where we want to. We take air superiority for granted in this country because we’ve been so good at it. When you think about it, the last time an American soldier or marine was killed on the ground from enemy aircraft—the last time—was April 15, 1953. When soldiers or marines from the United States or our allies hear aircraft over them, they don’t even have to look up, because they know it’s us. That brings a certain complacency about how difficult it is to maintain air superiority, but we’re determined to maintain it.
Ignatius: I should just interrupt to ack you about one thing that we’re beginning to think about, just in terms of the air traffic control problems, but it’s a war-fighting problem too, and that’s adversaries’ acquisition of drones. Is that something that you’re spending time thinking about? And how should our audience think about the proliferation of drone technology?
Wilson: Well, it’s an issue in American airspace, and not just for the military; it’s an issue for commercial and civil aviation as well, because they’re now much cheaper, much smaller, much faster, and even kids have them. And it’s an issue, it’s a safety issue, a safety of flight issue. But, there are more and more countries that have, we call them remotely-piloted aircraft, or drones, and the United States has a lot of them, as well, so a lot of emphasis has gone into the development of that technology over time. And there are places where we would put a drone where we would not put a manned aircraft because of the risk.
Ignatius: Unfortunately, nobody has sent in a question to #SecuringTomorrow about the bubbles in the fondue, but I invite somebody to—
Wilson: Did you know what I’m talking about?
Ignatius: I think so, but I want to have somebody pose a question so we can think more about those bubbles, and how to get inside them. But there is a question from Charles on Twitter, who asks, “How has the emergence of commercial launch-providers like Orbital and SpaceX affected the Air Force space mission?” Good question.
Wilson: A great question. So, the Air Force runs the launch facilities at Cape and also at Vandenberg. And we also launch—we’re responsible for the launching of national security payloads. We no longer build rockets; we buy launches. And we have invested in research and development in many of these companies. But we buy launches form SpaceX; we bought one just recently from Virgin Galactic, which has a new way—they have a 747 and launch a rocket from under the wig, so they fly up to 30,000 feet or so and then launch the payload from there on a rocket to go up to orbit. It’s a very different approach. And then, United Launch Alliance, we buy launches from them.
So, there’s a lot of innovation going on in the launch industry, driven by commercial providers, and we’re benefiting from it. The cost of launch is plummeting; you combine that with the decreasing size of payloads and there’s a lot more you can do from space today commercially than you could do a decade ago, so it’s really changing and we’re trying to benefit from it. We also were trying to benefit from it—and we talked a little about acquisition—but we, and how do we drive forward national security space?
In January, we decided to set up a consortium. It now has I think 160-some companies that are part of it. We initially put $100 million into it to try to get innovation into our own systems. Of those 160 or so, 124 are small companies, innovative companies that don’t normally do business with the Defense Department, because we’re too hard to do business with. We had so many companies want to participate, we increased it to $500 million. We’ve already signed three contracts; we’ve got another one in negotiation for small satellite tests and payloads.
And it’s 93 days between solicitation and contract award, so very fast, very simple contracts to get rapidly-innovating companies involved with national security space.
Ignatius: Let’s talk about acquisitions a little bit more. We’ll come back to weapons systems if we have time. But I know, acquisition procurement issues have been a big focus of yours. Talk a little bit about what the nature of the problem is. Why does it take so darn long for the Pentagon to buy things? Why do they cost so much? We all know the examples from back in Les Aspen’s day of the toilet seats that cost, you know, $500, and that go down the list—but this has been a problem really since the creation of the Defense Department, and it does seem as if, for all the innovative small projects to try to speed up acquisition, the kind of behemoth survives and continues lumbering into the future.
Why does it take so darn long and cost so much? And what really can you do to change that?
Wilson: Well, we’ve set it up really that way, with regulations and so forth. Fortunately, the Congress has given us some new authorities to get faster and to move, delegate authorities further down to program managers, who can be held accountable. Right now, accountability is kind of diffuse around this huge bureaucracy and it’s very, very slow. So, we’re trying to take advantage of those new authorities.
We’ve delegated a lot of authority down to program managers; we’re changing the way we govern our acquisition enterprise to look at speed, performance, and accountability—not like we’re managing 500 small projects, but across the enterprise. We’re also doing more prototyping experimentation. The old way of doing procurement of a new system is, we’d have two or three years of studying the analysis of alternatives to a complicated cup, and then we’d set a requirement for it, and you’d be two or three years into this before you’d even built anything. Then we build it, but we didn’t really know a lot about what the challenges would be, and so there’s—people are then unhappy that you didn’t meet the requirements.
Instead, we’re now going to start prototyping early; figuring out what’s within the realm of the possible; then setting the requirements and going rapidly to acquisition. Those are new authorities. The other one is, 70% of our costs of aircraft is actually in the maintaining of the aircraft. It’s the spare parts and all of those things. We are just setting up, we call it the rapid sustainment office. There are new technologies in manufacturing that mean we don’t have to go out to a supplier, some of whom are no longer in business. Just in the first quarter of this year, we had 10,000 requests for parts that there wasn’t even a single bidder because the company is no longer in business; they have—there’s no business case for one part.
This was actually the trim wheel for the rudder trim on a KC135 tanker. If you don’t have it, you can’t fly. It’s a vital piece of equipment. The company that makes them is no longer in business. We reverse-engineered this and 3D printed it. We are announcing this week that we are starting a rapid sustainment office to do more 3D printing, robotics on the depot line. Another one is called cold spray, which is repairing of metals rather than replacing them. So, using advanced techniques to drive down the cost of parts. This part cost about 50 bucks, 55 bucks, including all the engineering and everything else. If I had to go out to industry and have them set up the traditional way to do it and buy one part, this is over 700 bucks. So, we can drive down the cost for a part that is airworthy.
Ignatius: Let me ask you about a particular innovation, or set of innovations, that your new Assistant Secretary for Acquisition, Will Roper, has proposed. I heard him when I was traveling with Secretary Wilson to this space symposium, so called, in Colorado Springs. And he talked the language, if you will, of Silicon Valley, the language of fail fast, of take risks—not what you hear from government procurement officers.
Wilson: Isn’t it great?
Ignatius: So, it is new and refreshing. But, tell us a little bit about your charge to Will Roper; why you think he’s the right person for that job; and what you hope he might do in shaking up the whole way we think about acquisitions?
Wilson: First, he’s technically highly-competent. He’s, actually, a physics from Georgia Tech, and then another Rhodes Scholar Ph.D. in Mathematics, worked at the MIT Lincoln Lab; came in and worked for DARPA, which is one of the most admired technology agencies in the country; and then set up the equivalent of the rapid capabilities office, it’s called the SCO, for the Defense Department, before he came to be our assistant secretary. So he understands technology, but also, how to move technology fast.
And we’ve now given him the portfolio to be able to say, all right, push authorities down; go quickly; empower your program managers to prototype and experiment; connect to the war fighter. And we’re doing it across the board. It’s actually kind of an exciting time in Air Force acquisition.
Ignatius: We like to say take risks and fail fast, but one thing I’ve observed over many years is that Washington, and the military in some ways most of all, whatever we say, is a zero-defect culture. You screw up once and you’re basically finished. How do you change that?
Wilson: You know, it didn’t used to be that way, and I think we’re in some ways getting back to our roots. I call it—it used to be with engineering students—to failing productively. You want productive failure. There’s a reason we call these experiments. It’s because you’re learning something. If you prototype something, you’ve learned from it, and then you tweak your design. So you’re failing productively, and then you move on. You reduce the risk.
And in fact, one of the best examples of this is software. The military has been terrible about guying software. Anybody who has ever written—and it doesn’t really need to be software code—imagine if your novel—you wrote it all the way through and never went back to check anything, got to the end and turned it in to be checked. What is the probability that you’ve got a mistake? 102%, almost. I mean—sorry, but—
Ignatius: It’s just embarrassing even to think about that. [LAUGHTER]
Wilson: You do that with software, and it’s inevitable you’re going to have problems, and it’s a lot harder to find the problems if you do it in bug chunks. We are now shifting to agile development of software, in some cases updates overnight, so the risk is just yesterday’s work that you have to debug. And that agile development gets capability to war-fighter faster and reduces the risk of having bugs in your code. And so, you debug it as you go. It’s much faster, much better, and we’re having a lot of success with it.
Ignatius: Makes me think of a question that if I don’t ask you I’d get a hard time from my wife, who’s a computer scientist and a defense researcher. And that is, you’re obviously an example of a woman with a mastery of science and technology, but there’s a longstanding question of how more women can be drawn into the STEM areas, and I’m curious. You’re at the top of people in our government who are mastering these complex issues—how can this area be more supportive for women? How can government and private industry encourage women to get involved earlier and more effectively?
Wilson: We you mentioned, I was the president of a science and engineering university before I came back to federal service, and of course, one of the things we were trying to do was encourage more girls, more young women, to go to engineering school, engineering and science school.
One of the things we found is that, if you look at teenagers, more boys—there’s an overlap in the middle—but more boys are satisfied by solving the problem. They get satisfaction out of fixing something, solving a problem. A disproportion number of girls want to know why the problem matters. So, if we say, come be an engineer and you can do cool stuff, we’re talking to the boys. If you say, if you want to make a difference in someone’s life; if you want to have clean water or save the life of a family member you love, or make the environment cleaner, or provide energy to the world, be an engineer. Then we’re talking to both boys and girls. And I think that sometimes the way in which we talk about engineering is not resonating with our daughters, and it is with our sons.
Ignatius: And is that something that you’re trying to push for yourself, as an initiative?
Wilson: Well, my daughter’s studying engineering—so yeah, I—I have to say that I think I’m trying to, both personally, but also in the way we try to recruit—and it’s not just—we have this issue in the Air Force about pilots. We have a pilot shortage. But when we look at the people who are currently pilots in the Air force, and when we look even nationwide, a small percentage are women. A small percentage are also minorities, too, and that’s also an issue.
We did something this summer that I’m kind of excited about. We were saying, all right, we’ve got a pilot shortage. We know that less than 10% of Air Force pilots are minorities in America today. That is very, very small, compared to the American populace. So, what can we do? And the data says that minorities and women decide later, so it’s high school or college, rather than in middle school, that they think they may want to fly.
So, we have Junior ROTC in a lot of places around the country. Here’s an interesting fact: 58% of the kids in Junior ROTC, so, in high schools—58% of them are minorities. So, we started scholarships. We made 120 of them this summer; we partnered with seven, eight universities—so, the University of North Dakota, Auburn, Emory, Riddle—and we’re sponsoring 120 kids from Junior ROTC—so, they’ve already said they’re interested in the military a little bit—to get their private pilot’s license—a full ride scholarship. Go live on a college campus and learn to fly, with no commitment to come into the Air Force.
And the neat thing is, when that cohort they’re with—they’re not the one girl or the one minority in a hundred boys. And so, we’ve got 120 of that—we didn’t make a big splash about it, because we only had 120 slots initially. We had 800 kids apply, high school kids, from Junior ROTC. So, for inspiring the next generation of aviators, this one may work. But we’re going to watch it pretty carefully and try not to screw it up.
Ignatius: I have a question that’s come in on Twitter from Peyton, and Peyton asks: Given that the intelligence community has made mention of a national strategy to address threats to cybersecurity and AI, does the Air Force plan to adopt a national strategy to work with the private sector it eh development of orbital technology?
Wilson: We actually do work with the private sector on orbital technology. We contact all of our satellites. We also work in some cases with, we buy services like a lot of our satellite communications services we buy rather than actually purpose-build. Some of them we purpose-build for specific reasons. And we also in some cases will purchase a ride on somebody else’s satellite, put—that’s pretty cost-effective as well—and it also complicates the calculus of any adversary.
So, if we have a ride on somebody else’s satellite—it might not even be a U.S.-based satellite; it might not be a national satellite or a U.S. company—that complicates the calculus of any adversary when they’re thinking about denying us that capability, because they have to take down a system run by another country. So, we do that a lot.
Ignatius: I’d ask here a question on which a lot of the themes that we’ve discussed this morning, I think, come together. And that’s the Air Force’s planning for a new early-warning launch-detection satellite system. I think this is known in Pentagon-ese as SBIRS—S-B-I-R-S—Space-Based Infrared Systems—everybody knew that, but I just thought I’d repeat it. So—
Wilson: I charge 25 cents an acronym in my office. I’m going to make millions.
Ignatius: You will make millions. So, this procurement is interesting for a couple of reasons that I’ll mention, and then ask you to talk about it. First, the reason that we need to replace the system in part is because the existing system is soft and vulnerable to attack, and here’s the way we detect the enemy launching missiles that could strike us through infrared early-warning detection, and holy smokes, they could knock out the detection.
Ignatius: So, that’s scary. Second, it’s interesting because the initial proposal to create a new system, as I understand it, the delivery date proposed was 2029—basically, 10 years off. And the third reason this is interesting—and this is what I really would ask you to focus on—is that you and Will Roper, your acquisitions chief, and General Hyten, head of STRATCOM, have said, “Nope. We’re going to deliver this in five years,” which sounds like a long time, but in military time is pretty darn quick.
So, talk us through this question of this, the new architecture, threats to the old one, and what you’re going to do to meet that pretty quick deadline.
Wilson: First, though, what we’re talking about. So, it’s space-based infrared detects heat, so it stares at the earth and looks for the signature of a very hot rocket engine, and then calculates very quickly the direction and speed of that. So, when you see on the news that there’s been a North Korean missile launch and it does that big arc over the world, and where it landed—that initially comes within our job, is within minutes to say there’s been a launch; this is where it’s coming from; this is where it’s going; and alert the commanders. That’s our job, one of our missions.
We have a series of them. You know, satellites die after time, and they only have so much fuel and other things. So we replace them on a schedule based on when we expect them to no longer be operational. In this year’s budget proposal, in the president’s budget, it proposes to cancel what we call space-based infrared 7 and 8, which were the ones out in the mid-2020s, because they are—the current design is very large, very immobile, and vulnerable.
So, we’ll cancel those two, and instead to an alternative technology which we believe is defendable, and to accelerate procurement. The Congress has asked us, well, do we really need it before 2025? And we may not need it before 2025, and we’ll work with them on the dates and the funding profile. But we think that we can use existing technology, a known commercial bus, so we don’t have to redesign what it sits on, and move rapidly. We actually let two contracts to begin the development of these, competitive, keep the competition there. And we let them in less than six months. We are moving, and I think that’s what the nation expects, and that’s what we’re going to do.
Ignatius: So, I have a final question. We have just three minutes left with Secretary Wilson. And I’m going to steer away from technology toward the culture. Every military service, like every effective organization of any kind, has a culture. And I think it’s fair to say that the Air Force’s culture through its history has been defined by, and some ways dominated by, fighter pilots. You know, that’s the image of what—we’ve all seen Top Gun, and you know—
Wilson: Top Gun was Navy.
Ignatius: Well, I mean, you know—[LAUGHTER]—they’re still fighter pilots. But that does remind me that we’ll never have a unified all-service football game again. So, fighter pilots may dominate the Navy, too, but they certainly have a distinct role in the Air Force, and I wonder whether you, as Secretary, have tried in any ways to change that culture, the dominance of certain categories of officers, so that as to make it a more modern Air Force to face the kinds of challenges that we talked about?
Wilson: I think there are—like most of the services have different tribes within them—we have the mobility community that gets anything anywhere any time, and I don’t have time, but some wonderful vignettes of things that I’ve seen what our mobility airmen are doing to project power globally. The same with bomber pilots and bomber crews are projecting power globally. And space is a little bit different, as well. So, we have different tribes.
I think one of the things that unites airmen that I find everywhere is, we’re a little bit irreverent and iconic—we’re not always as hierarchical as the other services. And we’re a bunch of bicycle mechanics. Our roots are innovators, the tinkerers, the ones who figure out a different way to get something done, and get it done better, and it’s one of the things that I absolutely love about being back with the service, is being out with young airmen, as I was last week in the U.K., seeing them do something better. And they’re so excited to be able to show how they’ve figured out some problem, and they’re just going to do it a little better. And it’s all about being more lethal for the country.
Ignatius: Well, with that, I want to thank Secretary Wilson for being with us. As I said at the outset, a remarkable intellectual background and capability for the issues that you’re struggling to deal with. And we’re really glad to have you here at The Washington Post talking with us this morning. Thank you so much.
Wilson: Thank you. [APPLAUSE]