Carnegie New Leaders Podcast: The Future of Space Acquisition & Threats, with Maj. Gen. Nina M. Armagno

November 6, 2019

Launch of Atlas V carrying the Fifth Advanced Extremely High Frequency satellite, Cape Canaveral, Florida, August 2019.
CREDIT: U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Dalton Williams

AMELIA M. WOLF: Welcome to the Carnegie New Leaders (CNL) podcast series, where members of the CNL program identify leaders in their field of work and ask these experts critical questions about ethics and leadership. Our aim is to match experts to experts, rising leaders to global changemakers, and to bring the listening audience closer to understanding why ethics matter and what are the broader implications of ethical decision-making.

This is Amelia Wolf, president of the Carnegie New Leaders DC Chapter, and intelligence analyst at Maxar Technologies, a geospatial intelligence company, where we use space-based technology solutions to address mission-critical challenges. Any opinions I share today are my own and not those of Maxar or Carnegie.

Today I'm here at the Carnegie Council in New York City with Major General Nina Armagno, director of Space Programs in the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Acquisition at the Department of Defense (DoD). We're going to talk about her role and responsibilities at DoD and dive into the ethical and leadership components of her current position and successful career.

Ma'am, thank you so much for joining us today.

NINA M. ARMAGNO: Thank you for having me.

AMELIA M. WOLF: Before we dive into your current role, I'm wondering if you can share with our listeners your thoughts on how space is important to the American way of life and U.S. national security, because I think sometimes people don't always make that connection.

NINA M. ARMAGNO: Space is incredibly important to the American way of life. If you think about how you may have gotten here today and navigated your way through New York City, you probably used some sort of global positioning system (GPS) signal, either positioning, navigation, and timing, something like that, or some other source of data from space. Weather data comes from space. There is so much more. We use space for a lot of things that we Americans I think take for granted because it's just part of our natural world.

In the military, we use space for more strategic and tactical reasons. We use space to help us militarily. There are about 72 military space systems orbiting the Earth, and those range from GPS, as I mentioned, to military satellite communications, to strategic missile warning capabilities, to strategic military communications capabilities. There's weather.

They're all absolutely critical to the joint warfight that you see going on today in Afghanistan, Syria, and Iraq. And anywhere we are in the world, our military forces in other domains—like air, land, sea—are using space and all the information from and through space to further their missions. The precision that we have in our munitions, the precision we have in figuring out exactly where our troops are, that is all coming from space.

AMELIA M. WOLF: That's really interesting. I think a lot of people also don't quite realize that a lot of the technologies they use now on a daily basis actually originated with the military, including things like GPS.

NINA M. ARMAGNO: GPS today is actually commanded and controlled by the military at Schriever Air Force Base.

AMELIA M. WOLF: Tell us, in your role as director of Space Programs, what is your day-to-day look like?

NINA M. ARMAGNO: Day-to-day might not sound as exciting as the title, but we are working on a lot of exciting things. Day-to-day it's meetings, it's trying to create partnerships with others in the Air Force, create partnerships with those in the Office of the Secretary of Defense who have oversight roles of our space programs, and then connecting very importantly with Congress and the Hill, especially in terms of professional staffers there, who have a lot of decision-making power and the control of the pursestrings. They are exercising an oversight role of our programs as well.

I really think of my prime role as building those relationships and helping to explain the strategic necessity of what we're trying to do in space, which is actually—space is becoming a warfighting domain. Today we're the best in the world at what we do, and we're critical to the joint warfight, but Russia and China are changing the domain. They are threatening the space domain, and therefore we have to act.

We have to do things differently. In the world of space acquisition, we have to acquire things smarter and faster. If you look at how space is basically architected today, we even have to change those architectures to make them more resilient to threat.

AMELIA M. WOLF: How does space acquisition then fit into the overall space strategy?

NINA M. ARMAGNO: Space acquisition I think is a key component to making that strategy real. If the strategy is—which it is—that space is becoming a warfighting domain, then we have to be able to protect and defend the assets that are up there. To enable, protect, and defend means acquisition plays a key role in acquiring, procuring, and even helping develop and conceive of the architectures and the systems of the future that will protect and defend in space.

That means sometimes changing the systems themselves so that they're more maneuverable perhaps, or they can be technologically refreshed quicker. I'm talking about going from satellites that have 10-20-year design lives down to more of a 3-5-year design life; maybe it's a simpler sensor, but it can be technologically refreshed quicker. Acquisition plays a huge role in figuring out what those systems are and how they operate with other systems in space.

AMELIA M. WOLF: That's really interesting. You were talking about the shift toward warfighting. How has acquisition shifted with that?

NINA M. ARMAGNO: Acquisition has shifted in the way of really trying to go faster. The National Defense Authorization Act of 2016 under Section 804 gave us an authority to acquire systems—instead of going through the typical and very lengthy acquisition process, it allowed us to do middle-tier acquisition—that's what Section 804 authorizes. Middle-tier acquisition means you come into the acquisition past Milestone A, so you're roughly coming in around Milestone B, and within five years you either have to rapidly prototype your solution or rapidly field your solution. Section 804 authorities were designed to help almost kick-start acquisition.

By using 804 authorities, conceivably you don't have to do all the paperwork that is required before and then right after Milestone A, you don't have to work off of a full requirements document, you can have a more simplified requirements document, and that just speeds up the bureaucratic process of getting through the Pentagon.

By doing rapid prototyping and rapid fielding, that also speeds up the industrial base, because we're hopefully growing competition and having companies have "prototype-offs," if you will—we'll have multiple different types of prototypes—and then we select the best in the end. Those kinds of things are kick-starting acquisition to go faster.

AMELIA M. WOLF: Super. It sounds like that also has a bit of an influence on speeding up the private sector in terms of their innovation. Do you think that would be a secondary effect of that?

NINA M. ARMAGNO: They definitely need to partner with us. The way we're looking at this is: It's not World War II; it's not the Industrial Age, where during that time it really was the military-industrial complex that drove all of the airplane manufacturing, all of the new designs. If you think about the decades even after World War II, how many different types of aircraft were constantly being designed and coming through production and then flying in the Air Force?

We're now in the Information Age. We're now in an age, potentially, where that innovation is not residing inside the Pentagon but potentially outside the Pentagon, like what's going on with Apple, and Amazon, and things happening in Silicon Valley. If you think about where innovation really resides, it's not in your traditional military-industrial complex, it's outside of it. So, speeding traditional acquisition, hopefully, will attract innovative partners in nontraditional roles.

AMELIA M. WOLF: That's great to hear. Another component of your role—and this goes to a bit of the shift toward warfighting as well—is supporting U.S. Space Command. Can you just elaborate a little bit on what that means?

NINA M. ARMAGNO: We will be supporting U.S. Space Command a little differently than how we were supporting space before, because now we have General Raymond as the 11th combatant commander—brand new combatant command—that was stood up to really focus in on how to protect and defend in space. He will be the one writing the requirements that drive what we're all doing in terms of space acquisition. He is the warfighting commander, the combatant commander, and where all requirements originate from a warfighting perspective. We'll be answering his needs in space acquisition. That's how it works.

AMELIA M. WOLF: Interesting. We talked a little bit about the shift toward warfighting. Can you explain what that means for the everyday American, how that changes the space domain for them?

NINA M. ARMAGNO: What I mean by this shift is we have learned—we've seen this happening for some years now—that Russia and China are threatening the space domain. Very specifically, by the year 2025, they will be able to threaten every one of our satellites in every orbital regime. In the low-Earth orbit, we have a lot of our intelligence surveillance reconnaissance; the medium-Earth orbit is where GPS lives; the geosynchronous orbit is where we have our high-valued assets that do a lot of our strategic work, our strategic military satellite communications, our strategic missile warning in case an intercontinental ballistic missile is attacking the United States—or any other kind of ballistic missile. All of those orbital regimes will be able to be threatened by 2025.

For the regular American, that means civilian-type capabilities are not out of the woods, either. A lot of our civilian and commercial-type communications could be threatened, and certainly GPS could be threatened.

If you think about disruption to American lives, I would think GPS would be the first target. It's used in everything from providing timing in ATM machines and banking, to the app on your iPhone that you press to find directions. Our lifestyle as we know it would be pretty severely disrupted.

AMELIA M. WOLF: Are there ways that the United States is thinking about how to mitigate Russia or China so that we can stave off that 2025 date, or is it really just a matter of making sure that we're ready when that comes?

NINA M. ARMAGNO: It's a combination, I would say. It's trying to figure out how to better defend our current system.

What we really need to do—I think, personally and professionally—is be working with those countries, reaching out and figuring out how to work on global issues together, issues that affect all of us who live on the planet, like global warning. Those kinds of things could be something that we work on together, and it would be a tremendous way to get past the military tensions that exist.

AMELIA M. WOLF: We talk about Russia and China now, but have they always been the main threat? Over the course of your career, have you seen a shift in the major threats to space?

NINA M. ARMAGNO: When my career started in the late 1980s and early 1990s, space was a benign environment. There were no threats, and that's why our systems were built in such a way that they didn't need to be protected or defended. There was no reason to do that.

Our systems are built kind of in "stove pipes." How I like to explain a stove pipe is that you have your satellite system—even if it's GPS that we're talking about—it can only talk to a ground segment, and that ground segment then only talks to a specific user segment.

In 2015 General Hyten commissioned a study—he was the Air Force Space Command commander at the time—that said, "Okay, in light of these threats, we're going to have to look at space as an enterprise." To answer your question, early threats really didn't exist. We always saw Russia having significant capability in space until there was a huge downturn in their economy, and they weren't as highly capable in space.

Now you see a surge from China, and that's where this whole prediction of 2025 is coming from. We just see that, by then, they're going to be able to threaten us in every regime.

AMELIA M. WOLF: That brings us to another topic. There have been discussions about the U.S. Space Force. What does that mean for you? Also, what are your thoughts on it?

NINA M. ARMAGNO: I think the U.S. Space Force is definitely important for the nation, and it seems like it has a lot of momentum right now. Even a year ago—and actually in some places, you say "Space Force," and the next person says, [makes laser-gun sounds]. But in reality, the words "Space Force" and the determination of what that means, is actually in the four Defense Committees' proposed language for this next year. All four committees are talking about the Space Force and figuring out how to do it, so it's really no longer a matter of if; it's a matter of how, and potentially even when. But I think it's going to be soon.

Hopefully, it will be a sixth branch of service, and what this means is—just like when the Air Force was established from the Army—you're bringing a set of experts together to organize, train, equip, think, plan, strategize, and optimize. It's creating a new ecosystem, if you will, to try to help us as a nation figure out how to protect, defend, and even fight in space if we need to.

AMELIA M. WOLF: How would the U.S. Space Force then alter how we do space acquisition, if at all?

NINA M. ARMAGNO: I think space acquisition is on a great path right now. It's on a good trajectory. Everyone recognizes the need for speed. I think everyone recognizes the need to really build out our protect-and-defend type of architectures for space.

I think a Space Force could help to streamline the space acquisition process even more. The Space Development Agency (SDA) was just established this last year—in fact, I think just today it was announced that Dr. Tournear is the official head of the SDA, and what he's trying to do is really exciting. He's trying to "hack the system," if you will—these are really my words—about how to best use commercial capabilities for military purposes: How do we build smaller satellites faster, maybe even in mass production? Keep the sensors simple, launch them en masse, operate them in low-Earth orbit.

That type of capability is where we need to be moving in the future. I'm not saying everything resides in low-Earth orbit. There will be military "exquisite" capabilities still necessary, I'm sure, but not to the degree that we have them today, just because we could build them that way in the past. But moving forward, we just have to be a lot smarter about doing things faster. Establishing an organization like that—which will become part of the Space Force—will help space acquisition streamline and move out even faster in the future.

AMELIA M. WOLF: For the last portion of our chat today, I want to shift a bit toward ethics in your career, given that we're talking about Carnegie New Leaders here as well. Can you discuss an ethical challenge that you've faced in your career or in a decision that you've had to make in your current position?

NINA M. ARMAGNO: In my line of work as a general officer, we make ethical decisions every day. Every decision has to be completely above-board, has to be completely legal, has to be 100% moral, and therefore ethical. I wouldn't say I've had ethical challenges; I've had tough decisions to make in my career, but nothing really jumps out that would be an example of, "Oh, this is an ethical dilemma, and oh, I have to try to figure out how to make the right decision." I don't. I know I always have to make the right decision, and that's the decision I make.

I could give you an example of when I was young in my career. I was young in my career, and I found that I had left some classified materials out on my desk, or someone in my office maybe had left some classified materials out. We were not in an open-storage area, so this was just a no-no. Clearly, I could have simply opened the safe, put them into the safe, and closed the safe, and nobody would have ever known the difference. But I knew it was a violation. Even though it might have been from other perspectives a small violation, to me it didn't matter; it was still a mishandling of classified materials. Not to get overblown about it, but we in the military—you cannot take any of that lightly, no matter what level of classification it is. These were "just" secret materials, but we're still entrusted by the nation to keep those secrets.

Long story short, I went to my boss. He said: "Well, Nina. Not a terrible situation. Why don't you do what you think it best? Do what you think you should do."

The answer was easy. I reported myself. We had an investigation go. No harm, no foul. But it taught me that I should always do the right thing. My parents taught me to always do the right thing, but this helped me in my career. I'll never walk by a mistake, and I will treat every decision—it needs to be ethically made. Every decision's an ethical decision.

AMELIA M. WOLF: Yes. It sounds like it's inherent in your decision-making, so that's good to hear. Do you foresee any emerging ethical challenges in your field over the next 5-10 years?

NINA M. ARMAGNO: I guess the big one is the types of systems we put in space and the types of things we decide to do in space. I'm actually pretty proud of the organizations I deal with and I have to deal with. Nobody is questioning anymore that space is a warfighting domain, even though it was probably five years ago you couldn't say "space" and "war" in the same sentence.

I appreciate that. I appreciate that space and war in the same sentence translates to some people as "weaponizing" space. What we're trying to do in the Air Force and the rest of the Department of Defense is, first and foremost, defend the assets we have in space, defend the vital capabilities and data that's coming from space, not necessarily create crazed weapons that are only meant to fight a war in space. It's much more about protecting and defending the domain itself.

AMELIA M. WOLF: With only a few minutes left, I want to save some room to discuss leadership and some of your successes. First, I have to ask, how does it feel to be the highest-ranking female space officer in the Department of Defense?

NINA M. ARMAGNO: It's interesting you ask that, because I had to tell myself I was the highest-ranking woman space officer in the Department of Defense. I come from an era where being the first woman in a lot of things, it just happened to be because I was on the leading edge of women graduating from the Air Force Academy—I was in the eighth class—women being in space, women started flying fighter aircraft and being allowed into combat, and they're currently in combat.

But it has been a long road, and I have had a lot of, "Oh, you've been the first woman," or "You are the first woman," or "You're the most senior woman," and I would love to get to the point where you don't even recognize the gender. But I do realize how important it is to make that distinction because, even today, women are looking at themselves in the mirror or looking at their potential future and saying, "What could I do? Could I do this?"

I say, "You can do anything you want to do, and there have been people before you who have probably paved a path"—and certainly women have paved a path for me.

But now what we really need to do is reach back and pull the next one up and become more of an uplifting force for each other—women, I mean, women in defense, women everywhere—because it's no lack of talent and no lack of capability. Sometimes there's self-doubt, and I say: "Get rid of that doubt. You can do whatever you put your mind to. Just work hard and go after it."

AMELIA M. WOLF: I was going to ask you for a piece of advice that you would have for young women in the field. It sounds like you've partially answered that. Do you have anything else?

NINA M. ARMAGNO: I partially answered. I do, and I tell everyone this, actually: You've got to work hard. You've got to learn your job, whatever it may be—and in the military, everyone gets a specific job, and they get a bunch of training, and then they have to go perform. I think it's probably similar in other industries, in other parts of our country, in business; you've got to learn your job.

Then, you've got to be good at it. You really have to hone your skill, hone your craft, and once that happens, you'll get recognized for that hard work, you'll be given more opportunities, you'll be given more responsibilities—we call those "promotions"—and so on, and so on, and so on. Then, you get to the point where—fast-forward 20 years—you have a successful career.

So, I would tell women, you have to start with that credibility. You have to know your job better than anyone; not just better than the other women or better than the other guy, but do your job and know it better than anyone, and don't back down from the opportunities; don't have any self-doubt; find a mentor; find supportive peers; continue to grow, never look back, and just go for it.

AMELIA M. WOLF: That's great advice. Before we go, I want to talk about one more thing. There's a historic trend that great achievements among women—particularly in male-dominated fields—tend to go unnoticed until long after they've left their posts, so before you leave, I just want to say that what you're doing is important, it's game-changing, it's already having an impact, and you're an inspiration to young women. So, keep that in mind as you continue to do your great work.

Thank you for joining us today at the Carnegie Council and thank you for your service to the country as well.

NINA M. ARMAGNO: Thank you so much. It has been a real pleasure to be here with you.

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