Air Force taking steps to speed up space modernization

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NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. — Space advocates on Capitol Hill have pounded the Air Force for the slow pace of modernization. The four-star general in charge of Air Force Space Command says the message has been heard loud and clear.

“We need to move faster,” Gen. John “Jay” Raymond said Sept. 20 at the Air Force Association’s Air Space Cyber conference in National Harbor, Maryland.

“And we are taking steps to be able to do that,” he added.

The Air Force is convinced that acquisition programs would move faster if the chain of command were simplified, he said. Service leaders have asked the Pentagon to delegate milestone decision authority to the Air Force for critical programs, for instance. “We are pushing down to the lowest levels we can the authority on acquisition programs,” said Raymond.

Space Command has its own fast-track procurement office known as “operationally responsive space.” But it is also reaching out to the Air Force rapid capabilities office, an organization that has been lauded for minimizing red tape and bringing to fruition the B-21 bomber and the X-37B space plane.

Military space warriors also are seeking to work more closely with the intelligence community’s National Reconnaissance Office that builds secret spy satellites. “We need to have more partnerships with the NRO,” said Raymond.

A test of whether the Air Force can move faster is coming up this fall when Space Command will begin experimenting with a new tactical network called Enterprise Space Battle Management Command and Control.

Unlike traditional systems, this one is being designed with open standards so it can be updated as new technology comes on the market. “The goal is to develop a system with an open architecture to enable broad commercial involvement,” Raymond said.

“The doors are open to commercial space,” he said.

Brian Weeden, space policy expert at the Secure World Foundation, said these are worthwhile efforts but doubts that they will accomplish dramatic change.

Closer ties with the NRO would be helpful, but that seems unrealistic, Weeden told SpaceNews. “There are challenges in how the military space world interacts with the intelligence world.” The NRO has a different culture, different legal authorities and budgets than the military.

Weeden estimates that about $25 billion a year is spent on national security space and less than $10 billion is in the unclassified budget.

The sluggish acquisition process is an issue not unique to space, he said. “Keeping up with the accelerated pace of change of threats is a problem in general for DoD.”

Former Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James led a number of procurement reforms during the Obama administration, such as directing more frequent use of nontraditional contracting. Nonetheless, “We still have a long way to go,” James said Sept. 6 at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

“I think we need to continue pushing the envelope,” she said. “The key thing is to get some of the bureaucracy off to the side and streamline. We don’t need a massive reorganization.”

The important thing is for leaders to make decisions and “move out,” she said. “That was one of my key frustrations. Congress does see we have struggled. And they are OK to be concerned.”

Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Ala.), chairman of the subcommittee on strategic forces, has been pushing to realign space forces into a separate branch of the military. “We need to integrate our space program much better,” he said. “We should be simplifying acquisition.”

Former Air Force procurement chief William LaPlante said the service would be smart to follow the rapid capabilities office model for the space business. “It has the best contracting officers and engineering talent, the best acquisition professionals,” he said. “They get stuff done.”

However, there is a risk of overloading the rapid capabilities office with too many programs and slowing it down. He would recommend a “space rapid capabilities office” to focus only on space. “It’s a model that works.”