A test for Air Force space technology buyers: Fast prototyping

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The Air Force will use fast prototyping in the development of new ground-control and data processing software for the Space Based Infrared System.

WASHINGTON — Two words that come up in every conversation about reforming military procurement: Fast. Prototyping.

“Instead of automatically defaulting to very large exquisite programs of record, we want to do more prototyping and experimentation,” said Lt. Gen. John Thompson, commander of the Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center.

SMC is now at the center of a broad Air Force effort to expedite technology to the battlefield. A massive review is under way to entirely reorganize the center that oversees $6 billion a year in space procurements. In the near term, SMC is trying to accelerate projects through a space industry consortium that has a $100 million budget to start prototyping technologies such as ground-control software and small satellites.

At a news conference last week at the Space Symposium in Colorado Springs, Thompson noted that 85 percent of SMC dollars go into four very large program offices and that could change as the Air Force moves to modernize satellite constellations and data analysis capabilities.

The consortium uses simpler contracting rules than traditional programs. So-called “other transactions authorities,” or OTA, have existed for decades but are now being highly promoted in order to attract more vendors. “OTA is an opportunity to reach out to non traditional firms,” Thompson said. “Congress has been fantastic in giving us OTA authorities. They help us with experimentation and prototyping.”

The Air Force will use OTA contracting for the development of new ground-control and data processing software for the Space Based Infrared missile warning system. The project is called Forge, short for Future Operationally Resilient Ground Evolution. Through the consortium, the Air Force is seeking proposals for Forge “mission data processing” and for software applications.

“It’s a different approach,” said Bob Canty, vice president for business development at Raytheon Intelligence, Information and Services.

Raytheon, a top defense contractor with a large footprint in the military space market, is far from the nontraditional vendor that SMC is looking to attract. SBIRS, both the space and ground segments, are highly classified programs and it’s not clear how commercial firms without security clearances would be able to participate.

Raytheon expects to challenge Lockheed Martin, the current SBIRS satellite manufacturer and provider of ground-control systems. SMC is looking for a “flexible architecture,” Canty told SpaceNews. “It will use an OTA approach.”

SMC informed contractors it will use an “iterative prototyping strategy” for the Forge mission data processing application framework and for Forge applications. It will select three prototypes for the framework and three for the applications. Then it will choose the contractor that “develops the best prototype for each effort,” said the solicitation.

Canty said the OTA approach “allows the Air Force to go faster to prototyping.” The acquisition process for software could be compressed from two years to less than three months.

The Forge program would support the existing SBIRS constellation and it will be “extended to the future system,” he said. The Air Force decided in the 2019 budget to stop buying SBIRS satellites and start transitioning to a new constellation that would be more resilient.

SMC plans to continue to use the Space Enterprise Consortium for future projects. As of April 2018, the SpEC has 143 members, 101 of which are non-traditional defense contractors.

The consortium “provides an acquisition vehicle to develop space-related prototype projects,” an SMC spokesman told SpaceNews. “This includes all aspects of a space system including spacecraft, launch vehicles, and ground systems. The definition for a prototype can include, but is not limited to, prototypes for software, hardware, processes, or combination thereof.”

The use of OTA, said the spokesman, “will minimize barriers to entry for small businesses and non-traditional vendors to work with the U.S. government.” Prototypes with values less than $100 million are approved by SMC. Congress put some restrictions in the 2018 National Defense Authorization Act for larger OTA projects. Prototypes valued over $100 million and up to $500 million are approved by a senior acquisition executive. Values over $500 million have to be signed off by the office of the secretary of defense.

SMC has released four solicitations to date through the consortium. Forge would be the fifth planned. The first was the Tetra microsatellite project. SMC is interested in developing a family of space vehicles. The second solicitation was for a Missile Defense Tracking System prototype for the Missile Defense Agency. MDA has selected eight companies for award as a result of this solicitation.

The third solicitation released is for protected tactical satellite communications for so-called “small disadvantaged terminal users in small stand-off distance environments.” Proposals have been received and are under evaluation. The fourth one is for hosted payload interface unit prototypes. This would provide encryption and secure transfer of payload mission data between a DoD payload and any “untrusted” satellite host.

SpaceNews correspondent Debra Werner contributed to this story