Air Force chief buyer: Don’t believe the hype, space procurement ‘not broken’

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In a survey of the SMC workforce, the most frequently cited adjectives associated with the organization were “slow and bureaucratic."

WASHINGTON — The Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center, a huge organization based in Los Angeles that oversees multi-billion dollar programs, will undergo a reshuffle in the coming months.

The reorganization of SMC comes at the direction of Defense Department and Air Force leaders, as well as heads of congressional committees who have grown impatient with the sluggish pace of military acquisitions.

Yes, buying is slow and bureaucratic, but the criticism is overblown, said SMC Commander Lt. Gen. John “JT” Thompson.

“Space acquisition is not broken” despite what people see in news headlines and hear in the halls of the Pentagon, Thompson told an audience of contractors and congressional staff on Friday at a Mitchell Institute event on Capitol Hill.

“We are the best in the world at space. Period,” he said. “You don’t get that way if you don’t have good acquisition processes and good acquisition organizations.”

SMC will be reorganized nonetheless. Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson told lawmakers that “SMC 2.0” will accelerate the development of modern military satellites that will be less susceptible to jamming and other anti-satellite technologies being advanced by Russia and China. And SMC’s own employees agree this is overdue change. In a survey of the entire workforce of 5,000 people, the most frequently cited adjectives associated with the organization were “slow and bureaucratic,” Thompson revealed.

“Our system has been built to be dependable, to deliver high mission assurance, to emphasize technical excellence,” he said. “We are entering an era where we value speed and innovation.”

He described SMC as a “great industrial age model for building space weapons systems in a benign environment” but one not suited to the current geopolitical reality. “We can’t manage our space environment like an old Soviet tractor factory,” said Thompson. “We have to be more like a Silicon Valley modern business.”

The oversight of space programs will be simplified so there are fewer layers of approval and less paperwork, he said. The management of nearly half of SMC’s programs will be delegated to lower ranked officials so there are “fewer checkers checking checkers,” said Thompson. To promote the flow of ideas, SMC will fund prototypes and experiments before committing to full-scale developments.

What is changing?
The most dramatic reform SMC will attempt is to change how different product lines interact with each other. Each “directorate” now focuses on separate mission areas — precision, navigation and timing; military satellite communications; remote sensing, and space control and space situational awareness. These are vertical hierarchies that operate in isolation and each at its own pace. The Air Force wants SMC to function as a horizontal enterprise.

An example of the inefficiency created by the current organization, Thompson noted, is SMC’s oversight of Lockheed Martin’s satellite business. The company receives about $2 billion a year worth of contracts from SMC for GPS, communications and missile warning satellites. “Connectivity between programs or efficiency between programs is non-existent,” he said. “Why not exploit commonalities?”

Thompson said a new “portfolio architect” team of 150 to 200 people within SMC will be in charge of “integration across stovepipes.” There will also be more outreach offices that will work with the private sector, defense and intelligence agencies, and foreign allies.

SMC will invite contractors to an “industry day” in late July to share further details of the reorganization.

A couple of big-ticket programs will see some adjustments, but they will be subtle. One is the acquisition of two new Wideband Global Satcom communications satellites from Boeing. “We’ll procure WGS 11 and 12 as commercially as we can,” said Thompson. This means Boeing will be have more freedom to use components from its commercial satellite line. “We want to make this procurement far more commercial than previous WGS, less reliant on our mission assurance process.”

This could create friction at SMC, where a culture of mission assurance and minimizing risk is deep rooted. “Our goal is not to sacrifice mission assurance but to repurpose mission assurance to a more commercial model where we rely on Boeing to provide that mission assurance,” said Thompson. “Internally, the challenge will be for SMC and Boeing to try to wring out of the process as much traditional government stuff as we can to get the satellites cheaper and faster.”

SMC will test new ways to use commercial satellites as host platforms for military payloads, said Thompson. In a recent experiment, space weather sensors were sent to orbit aboard Iridium Next commercial satellites. “We have 22 of 32 of those hosted payloads on orbit,” he said. “They are providing data to us right now to predict space weather. Also, we are practicing hosting DoD payloads on commercial satellites.”

Legislation passed in 2016 gives the military license to expedite the procurement of next-generation satellites. SMC is using these authorities to buy five missile-warning satellites from Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman. The Air Force calls them “next-generation Overhead Persistent Infrared” satellites. In reality, though, the program is more of  a continuation of the Space Based Infrared (SBIRS) satellites that the Air Force has said need to be replaced with less vulnerable spacecraft.

Next-generation OPIR, at least in the early stage, is “a lot like SBIRS,” Thompson said. “We believe we can save size, weight and power in block 0 and deliver equivalent capability,” he added. “The big difference is schedule and time. … As we go to block 1, incremental improvements will be made with technology refreshes.”

SMC making incremental, not radical, shifts in procurement may not sit well with top Pentagon officials and leaders of defense congressional committees. In compliance with language in last year’s National Defense Authorization Act, Deputy Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan in August will submit recommendations on how DoD plans to improve its management of space systems and accelerate innovation. In an interim report Shanahan sent to Capitol Hill in March, he called for sweeping change. “The Air Force must return to a focused adoption of new technologies for game-changing capabilities,” Shanahan wrote. “This focus must be built into the space acquisition culture, and the workforce must be given freedom to execute with a sense of urgency and ownership.”

Shanahan said SMC has to eliminate current barriers that inhibit “alternative ideas, exploring different concepts, and ultimately, providing competitive forces to create substantial improvements in speed, cost, and performance.”