Op-ed | As adversaries threaten U.S. space systems, serious changes are needed in defense procurement

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This op-ed originally appeared in the Feb. 12, 2018 issue of SpaceNews magazine.

It takes the U.S. Defense Department on average seven years to develop a space system. Compare that to the 10 months it took to build the first military weather satellite in the 1960s.

Today we accept these long timelines and focus on making the original idea work despite performance shortcomings against evolving threats and technology obsolescence.

Some of the contributing factors: Excessive oversight that has grown over the years as previous generations of systems had acquisition problems; risk aversion to the perceived risk of change; and bureaucracy. Also, military requirements are too detailed, prescribing solutions instead of focusing on broad mission needs and capabilities, and it simply takes too long to react to changes in the environment.

This rigidity of the military requirements process means that systems cannot be changed easily after development begins, resulting in systems that are technologically obsolete by the time they reach production. This is a major concern for space programs as threats mature faster than we can respond. With our adversaries building systems with new technology and fielding them in three to four years, it clearly will not take many cycles to fall behind.

“As we built a space enterprise in an uncontested domain, we had the luxury of going slow because our adversaries were not pushing us,” Air Force Chief Of Staff Gen. David Goldfein recently said. “We’re in a different place now. Like the nuclear enterprise, space is the other enterprise where we’re going to have to look at speed as a key attribute for success.”

There is significant effort and thought being put into reducing requirements and development timelines. However, there is not a proven system in place to do this as yet.

In praise of prototyping

One potential near-term solution entails prototyping technology before systems begin production and conducting operational demonstrations in advance of operational deployment. But to gain the advantages that prototyping offers, we must produce authorities and approval processes.

Prototyping has been around for a very long time. In fact, the Packard Commission in 1986 encouraged prototyping as a “fly before you buy” approach. Prototyping is good at uncovering those unknowns that frequently plague programs, both in technology and in operational interfaces.

What has not been done lately is to allow program offices to use prototypes to demonstrate capabilities — as tools to jumpstart the next-generation mission technology. In fact, given the troubles faced by major satellite programs over the past decade, program offices have been focused exclusively on executing acquisitions. The result is delays in the development of solutions to future mission needs.

Program offices are virtually required to take the conservative approach of continuing along existing paths because they are hamstrung by the Tyranny of the Program of Record (PoR), and change is perceived as both more costly and risky. Because they are restricted to the defined PoR, budgets are not easily changed; doing so involves high political risk to program managers and can require extensive time to justify and get approved.

The challenge is to design and implement acquisition strategies that allow the flexibility necessary to approve technology insertion and budgets in a timely manner.

Prototyping offers a means to support more resilient, more distributed capabilities, but it is not a given. We must take great care to do this correctly. When space was a benign domain, we focused on using demonstrations to push the performance envelope. Today, operations in a contested domain mean we must figure out how to protect and defend our capabilities. This will put a premium on understanding concepts of operations and interfaces across a combat enterprise.

This also means that we must include the operators who will train and fight with these systems much more than we have in the past.

Prototypes should be assessed on their ability to be integrated into the existing architecture as capability gapfillers, as technology insertion into current systems, or as technology risk reduction.

“I watch what our adversaries do. I see them moving quickly into the space domain, they are moving very fast, and I see our country not moving fast, and that causes me concern, and I won’t support the development any further of large, big, fat, juicy targets. I won’t support that,” Gen. John Hyten, commander of U.S. Strategic Command, said Nov. 18 at the Halifax International Security Forum.

To move down this path, program directors need the necessary authority and accountability to be “mission owners,” not just current system acquirers. They need this authority so that they can accept additional near term risk in developing demonstrators along with the flexible funding to accomplish prototypes, such as the Space Modernization Initiative budget. We must find ways to bridge this gap.

The resource people must allow program directors to budget across this gap. We must move forward with these changes quickly. Changing learned behavior is difficult. Reporting chains and authorities need to be
adjusted.

Necessary steps include:

  • Implement the congressionally suggested “functional capability board” for space. It would be led by U.S. Stragegic Command, with support from U.S. Air Force Space Command the Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center.
  • Identify potential future threats and adversary capabilities with help from the intelligence community.
  • Identify gaps in capabilities by mission and across the enterprise.
  • Find viable “need to know” mechanisms to make this information available to industry so companies can start working on these problems.
  • Provide budgeting and funding authority to Air Force Space Command for all demonstrations and acquisition authority for operational demos and to the new undersecretary of defense for research and engineering post for technical demos.
  • Provide stable funding dollars to the Space and Missile Systems Center that is adequate for multiple demonstrations and provide the center the authority to allocate this to mission-focused program offices.
  • Delegate authority to program directors to define plans to rapidly close identified mission gaps, to include use of prototypes with operational demonstrations, via continuous improvements to cover these mission gaps.
  • Define future technology needs and the resulting technical demonstrations necessary to meet these needs.
  • Define a new process for moving operational and technical demos more rapidly into operational systems.

In summary, we are talking about a new use of prototyping to drive down technical and operational risks of next-generation systems and get capability in orbit quickly, along with the ability to use this capability to cover near-term capability gaps caused by new and evolving threats. These needs must be matched with budgets and authorities, or the advantage of speed can disappear quickly.

Prototyping will help solve some pressing challenges but it doesn’t solve the long-term institutional issue of fielding operational systems through the formal requirements and acquisition processes in a more rapid fashion. We cannot afford to ignore the elephant in the room. The acquisition system as currently operating is not sufficiently agile to keep up with the threats.

Thomas “Tav” Taverney is a retired Air Force Major General, and industry executive.