Air Force changing how it buys weapons and satellites, but software still a headache

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Roper: In space we will experiment with doing things differently and more commercially.

WASHINGTON — William Roper, assistant secretary of the Air Force for acquisition, told the House Armed Services Committee during a hearing Wednesday that congressional efforts to speed up the Pentagon’s lethargic procurement process are making a difference. But there are still problem areas that laws alone can’t fix.

Testifying alongside the acquisition executives of the Army and the Navy, Roper credited the committee for recognizing the severity of the Pentagon’s modernization crisis. “Technologies our government must develop — like hypersonics and directed energy — have slowed compared to other nations like China,” he said. “It is no wonder fundamental changes to how the department designs, acquires and sustains our military are a focus of this committee.”

Each of the defense policy bills Congress passed since 2016 pushed aggressive reforms, and some appear to be gaining traction. Roper said Air Force program managers are taking advantage of new authorities to experiment with commercial technologies and use expedited contracting arrangements. He said development and acquisition should evolve into a “contact sport of doing, failing, learning and refining.”

The age-old adage “fly before you buy” remains relevant as the Air Force moves to modernize aviation and space systems. “Prototyping is the natural bridge between new technology and programs of record and is the appropriate place for new concepts to ‘fly or die,’” Roper said.

In space, he said, “We will experiment with doing things differently and more commercially.”

Concerns about the Air Force lagging in space modernization has led to a massive review of the entire space procurement organization.

Air Force Gen. Paul Selva, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said things have to change. Speaking on Tuesday at the McAleese Credit Suisse defense programs conference, Selva recalled being in Silicon Valley just over a year ago and visiting a company that built and launched into orbit a satellite the size of a 55-gallon drum within 18 months. “It took another three months to start making money,” he said. By contrast, “Our average timeline from requirements to fielded satellites is 144 months. That is not expedient deployment of technology.”

Roper in his testimony said the Space and Missile Systems Center is making greater use of “other transactions” agreements to expedite projects. The Space Enterprise Consortium uses OTAs to attract non-traditional defense contractors for space-related prototyping. “I look forward to expanding the practice across our enterprise,” said Roper.

But buying software remains an uphill battle for the Air Force. “Software acquisition continues to lead to overruns,” Roper said. “What frustrates me is that we have software almost in every system that we build. But none of it is common, none of it is recycled. When we look at commercial industry, the same software is resident everywhere.”

In prepared testimony submitted to the committee, Roper said the Defense Department’s approach to software acquisition trails industry standards. Of major Air Force acquisitions exceeding their original cost baselines, the majority (five of nine) are software developments and two are key space programs. They include the GPS Next-Generation Operational Control System, the Joint Space Operations Center Mission System Increment 2, Defense Enterprise Accounting/Management System, the Air Operations Center Weapon System Increment 10.2 and Mission Planning System Increment 5.

There are specialized technology cells such as the Air Force Digital Service that are brought in to apply modern software development to struggling programs. But that is not a sustainable solution. “Reforming software acquisition is a top priority for me and the Air Force,” Roper noted. He said a key goal is to train and educate the workforce so it can make better buying decisions.

The next-generation GPS ground control software, known as OC-X, ranks among the most troubled acquisitions in recent memory, experts have noted. The original contractor bid was $800 million. “We’re at $6 billion and counting on that program,” said Roper’s predecessor Bill LaPlante, senior vice president of the MITRE Corporation.

“We have a lot of heavy lifting to do” in acquisition reforms, LaPlante said at a recent Center for Strategic and International Studies conference. “We’ve allowed ourselves to get into this paralysis.”

CSIS defense and aerospace analyst Todd Harrison said the Pentagon’s lagging innovation in space compared to the private sector means competitors like China are “trying to catch up to SpaceX, not the U.S. military.”

Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson, speaking at the McAleese conference, said the fiscal year 2019 budget proposal shows the service is serious about changing. “We are moving to an accelerated, more agile missile warning set of satellites. We are developing close partnerships with the National Reconnaissance Office,” Wilson said. “The United States has been dominant in space for a long time. But we built a glass house before the invention of stones. We’re being threatened. And we have to deal with that in the changing of our doctrine, training and programs.”

Wilson said the nomination of a new three-star vice commander of Space Command based in the Pentagon was intended to help expedite decision-making and move programs faster. The four-star commander of Air Force Space Command is based Colorado Springs. “He spends a heck of a lot of time going back and forth to Washington D.C.,” said Wilson. “We’re making significant changes in space to recognize it is a contested domain, that requires a lot of talking with a lot of people. It requires a lot of change in the way we are managing programs and training our people.”