Military, industry hope 2017 means big improvements for space acquisition

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WASHINGTON — Acquisition reform must begin with closer cooperation between the military and commercial space sectors, industry advocates said March 7.

The Defense Department needs to ask “when does it make sense to use commercial versus an allied capacity versus a military asset?” said John Monahan, senior vice president for satellite products at Kratos Defense.

“I think we’re just beginning that for space,” he said. “It’s going to be hard. It’s not going to be easy and it’s going to rattle some cages in terms of authorities and all that. But with the pace of the threats today, if we don’t do this we all know what’s going to happen.”

Speaking at the Satellite 2017 conference, Monahan said the Pentagon has never before had such an opportunity to leverage commercial capabilities.

“We’ve never had a timeframe in space where there’s been so many of these cost effective satellites that are going up. We’ve never had a time in space where there are 50 different booster initiatives that are going on right now to go ahead and launch smallsats,” he said. “It’s a game changer, and we’ve got to think differently about solving the problems.”

Col. Sidney Conner, the deputy director of space programs for the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Acquisition, said the service is taking a hard look at how it increases agility in the acquisition process.

“I think we are taking very proactive steps,” he said. “We are taking a hard look at how to structure our organizations and what’s important in those organizations.”

John Monahan, senior vice president for satellite products at Kratos Defense, speaking March 7 at Satellite 2017. Credit: Kate Patterson for SpaceNews
John Monahan, senior vice president for satellite products at Kratos Defense, speaking March 7 at Satellite 2017. Credit: Kate Patterson for SpaceNews

“One of the schools of thought is that the regulation and policy that are there are more than sufficient, and we need to find better ways to implement,” Conner continued. “The other school of thought of course is that there are too many regulations, too much policy, it’s holding us back. It’s pinning us down. Probably where i fall down on that is probably somewhere in between.”

Conner said the acquisition process will hopefully reach an equilibrium of “form follows function.”

“If we can get the authorities and the processes and the workforce, and those things properly aligned, I think questions about structure of organization and whether things are correctly aligned in terms of administration, will fall out,” he said.

The biggest roadblock to any kind of reform, however, is money and resources, said Jeffrey Trauberman, vice president of space, intelligence, and missile defense systems for Boeing Satellite Systems International.

“Stating the blindingly obvious it’s going to be resources,” he said, adding that U.S. research and development budget for space modernization “is at a 20-plus year all-time low.”

“When you really look at it across all these mission sets…it’s a very modest number to be thinking about in terms of modernizing our systems,” Trauberman said. “I think what you may see frankly is that the department is really forced into acquiring a couple of more of what it currently has now.”

And stagnation of systems likely isn’t good for private businesses, he said.

“You would think as well this budget situation could present an upside to the commercial space community because while [the Pentagon] is trying to figure out what to do next, you augment it with commercial,” Trauberman said. “My experience is while this issue is being studied, going to analysis of alternatives and what to do next, it really is hard for commercial providers to gain traction with their solutions.”

Monahan urged the military to always look towards commercial solutions.

“Clearly there is no one size fits all way to go ahead and do the requirements differently, but I think there are a couple of attributes that could help out,” he said. “Go commercial. You don’t need a unique way of satisfying your requirement per se. If it’s good enough, go commercial. You get it cost effectively, you get it quickly.”