Op-ed | Turning technology inside our adversaries


This commentary originally appeared in the June 19, 2017 issue of SpaceNews magazine. 

From the dawn of warfare, the key warfighting precepts of “hold the high ground” and “keep the sun behind you” have evolved and become more subtle, but they are still valid today. As air power in World War II evolved, battles moved to the air and the necessity to maintain air superiority became a fundamental warfighting philosophy. If you asked a fighter pilot during World War II what he needed in a plane, he would say, “I want to turn inside the enemy,” or superior maneuverability. Today, as we have firmly moved to space as the high ground, this maxim has never been truer.

SpaceNews cover June 19, 2017Today, however, “turning inside our adversary” is as much about technology development cycles as battlefield maneuvers. As technology cycles are turning faster and faster, our adversaries are learning to turn inside our technology development cycles. This technology “turn” is becoming more sophisticated, challenging our capabilities in space. Each generation of technology improves over the last, because each generation leverages the one before. Therefore, the pace of technological progress speeds up over time. Accelerating progress leads to the emergence of more and more sophisticated technologies. Technical superiority is separated by shorter and shorter time intervals.

Adversaries are turning out their counters to our technology inside our development times. They can counter our superiority in technology before we can field our next-generation systems. Often they find ways to do this with lower cost and less technically sophisticated solutions. The net result is our space systems become vulnerable and less effective within their own operational lifetimes.

There is a narrative that opposes changes to the current development process. While much of that can be, has been, and continues to be argued over costs and risks, what cannot be argued is the speed at which our adversaries are implementing new technology or (maybe just as scary) learning to counter our new technology. We now live in an environment where it takes roughly 7-10 years to gain approval for and to develop a space system that is in service for up to 12 years or longer. That means we are giving our adversaries 20 years or more to develop and implement counter measures to 20-years-or-older technology. High-cost, long-duration solutions are only valid if you assume a long-term “static” (rather than “dynamic”) threat and response environment. At a recent congressional hearing, Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson said “adversaries are modernizing and innovating faster than we are, putting America’s technological advantage in air and space at risk.” Clearly if they are modernizing on three-to-four-year cycles and we are modernizing on seven-to-10-year cycles, it doesn’t take many cycles for the U.S. to lose our technological advantages. In this age of more and more rapid technology cycles, the implications are clear: Space missions need to be planned where adversary counter response and technology evolution are given major consideration in establishing schedules and even determining how much technical content should be bitten off at each proposed block.

For years, we have gone in the direction of taking longer and longer to decide which systems to pursue and then develop those systems — from 10 months for the first DMSP weather satellite to the 7-10 years of today’s satellites. We have heard from senior leadership that to defend our advantage in space we need to go to shorter development cycles and deliver lower-cost, more-resilient systems. We have yet to achieve these goals. It is a difficult goal to achieve because of the political nature of acquisition itself which involves billions of taxpayer money and equates to millions of jobs. Yet, it is critical to move to the shorter development times, with rapid technology insertion to turn inside our adversaries from a technology point of view. It might be noted that this is not just a space system phenomena, but the development and approval cycle for aircraft, ships, and other complex systems is also longer than ever.

We have seen significant developments by our adversaries in the realm of space superiority. They are making rapid technology advances in strategic and tactical missile threats, yet we are still in the mode of continuing to buy 1980s technology systems in response. While I certainly agree we need to move to more affordable and resilient systems from a survivability of capability point of view, the other element that is just as important is turning inside the adversary from a technology development point of view.

These imperatives mean we must change how we acquire systems, and we cannot afford to wait until another generation of systems to do this. Shiyan and Lucha are now.

So we need to change BOTH how we buy things, get new concepts through an intense approval cycle with many players involved and more importantly, what we buy.



Much has been said and written on how we buy things. How we buy things tends to be tightly related to what we buy. The checks and balances we use to reduce the cost, schedule, and performance risks of our systems have slowly evolved to have characteristics that are becoming virtually untenable.

If we buy complex, expensive aggregated systems, then we likely cannot afford spares. This creates a high-risk situation requiring that a system must work or we are without capability for many years. As a result, we have to have a highly assured method of buying and testing, i.e. Class A. If we moved to buying lower cost, single-purpose systems, we would be able to buy more and have inherent spares. We could lower surety, increase our risk posture by buying more things and buying them faster.

We need to come up with a more time-efficient way to develop and certify requirements. This will include accepting some risk tolerance by eliminating the need for everything to be Class A. It also means emphasizing requirements flexibility to facilitate the implementation of newer technology and the elimination of technology obsolescence. Finally, it means decreasing lifetime requirements to lower cost and allow technology insertion. This could  include use of more prototyping and not allowing programs to enter formal acquisition milestone status until absolutely ready. One way of rapid technology insertion is through delivery of capability incrementally, i.e. the ability to evolve inside each block. If designed in from the start as part of the acquisition process via block upgrades tied to meaningful capability increments, this could work. This is the way we did things when we acquired Hexagon; evolutionary capability improvement was put into every vehicle. The commercial comm satellite world essentially does the same thing.

Long life means expensive to build and has too great an opportunity cost from the technology advancement perspective. It also gives adversaries too long a period of “stability” that allows them to design effective, low cost counter measures. Long life of these space systems also robs our advantage to exploit opportunities to do technology refreshes or even to fix problems that often appear during a satellite’s long life. Long life may itself drive redundancy on systems and drive weight which in turn drives launch costs.

However, the main purpose of this commentary is to address what we buy.



We need to better align authority and responsibility as the first key step to reduce the non-value added reviews and decision timelines. We also need to  give Air Force Space Command  working with the Program Executive Officer for Space the authority to define both development Class (A, B, C, or D, or any combination consistent with budget and need) and lifetime as the key decision factors in the level of acceptable mission risk commensurate with the command’s mission priorities and the space enterprise needs. Space Command, leading other key space stakeholders such as STRATCOM, is best qualified to assess the risk posture along with technology insertion needs vs lifetime and cost.

We also need to better leverage commercial industry. Rideshares are certainly viable and have been proved so, but it requires a change in thinking, and that is hard. While there are issues to be worked out regarding cyber protection, especially rideshares on foreign payloads, it is less hard if we focus on commercial buses, which allows the government to concentrate on payloads to accomplish the mission and significantly reduces sustaining costs. The big argument against this approach has been nuclear survivability. We need to be honest with ourselves and admit that there is no rational nuclear threat to space systems that could be defended against. Certainly, there are sophisticated space based threats (jamming, etc.) but the commercial industry is as concerned and proactive in this arena as the DoD.

The how-to-deploy decision needs to be a responsibility seated with the organize, train and equip function for space vs. the acquisition portion of the DoD. The organization that is responsible for providing the people and equipment to fight space and defend space should be the ones measuring risk vs requirements.

The Joint Capabilities Integration and Development System (JCIDS)  process and goals are defined in Title 10 for the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs or the Vice thru the Joint Requirement Oversight Council. This is a good thing. However, it has morphed into levels of detail that were never originally intended. I believe we just need to define levels of degree in more detail. Or they want to write requirements that specify a solution. For example, mandate that capabilities are qualitative statements only; whereas requirements are quantitative. In other words, prohibit quantitative statements from the Initial Capababilites Document and Capability Development Document. Applying this simple definition would refocus the JCIDS process on the original intent of that process. Translating those qualitative statements (capabilities) into quantitative statements (requirements) would then be done by the acquiring agent using the systems engineering process.

JROC – provides a definition of the missions that need to be done and define the goals of those missions. This is much like the way that the corporate level of an organization does with the company’s strategic plan.

Warfighting command (e.g. STRATCOM) – define the objectives of each mission, and particularly the mission capabilities required along with the ways they will be deployed, along with a definition of the users and how they will use the systems.

MAJCOM (e.g. AFSPC) – define the mission requirements and cross cutting requirements across the missions in their portfolio. Define the operations concepts for each of the missions.

PEO Acquisition organization (e.g. SMC) – design, develop and acquire the systems to accomplish the missions. The process of translating capabilities into requirements is the first step in the systems engineering process (ref: the original MIL-STD 499A definition of systems engineering and the requirements analysis loop). The strength of systems engineering resides in the fact it is a closed loop process that uses feedback to maintain control of the process and its resulting design Accomplish mission and Cross mission architectures.

We need to focus on low risk methods of rapid technology insertion. We must focus on technology insertion and modular flexible system designs that can accommodate technology insertion. We should develop with on ramps, with separate technology development arms, and a system development plan that provides windows to incorporate technology if it is ready.

U.S. Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson and Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David golden prepare to testify June 6 before the Senate Armed Services Committee. Credit: U.S. Air Force
U.S. Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson and Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David golden prepare to testify June 6 before the Senate Armed Services Committee. Credit: U.S. Air Force


Despite the rhetoric, we simply cannot continue to acquire space systems the way we have in the past. We are no longer one of two superpowers, nor the single major player in space. Sixty countries are now in space and have interests in space. China and Russia are at least near peer players in space; both have shown they are willing to build systems leveraging new technology and are doing this on very short time cycles. They are even more successful in countering our advances almost before they are fully fielded. At the speed our adversaries are incorporating new technology into their space systems. We either keep up or we will soon no longer be the dominant international player in space. While resiliency is critically important, speed has also become essential so that we can implement this generations version of turning inside our adversaries. The speed factor must be a driving force as we pursue the Space Enterprise Vision (now called the Space Warfighting Construct).  It may produce greater results than anything else we do to achieve resiliency.

So, as we go forward we should at least seriously investigate, or outright implement the following recommendations:

A. What we buy:

1. Our systems must be technically superior to those of our adversaries. With the speed of technology, we need to find a way to turn acquisition faster, and do technology insertion more efficiently.

2. These capabilities need to be available in an assured fashion; therefore, they must be resilient and be able to be rapidly reconstituted.

3. This will result in more rapid on orbit replacement and more payloads; therefore, we need to become more affordable.


B. How we buy it (Affordability and speed drives the need for):

4. A faster,  more efficient and flexible requirements (JCIDS) validation approach

5. Greater use of Class B, C, & D elements

6. Properly aligning authority and accountability

7. Use of commercial space industry, especially for buses and rideshares

8. Getting Milestone Decision Authority for our ACAT-1 programs back into the Air Force.

9. Reducing the life expectancy duration for the systems we are procuring in order to leverage the ability to refresh technology more often and to reduce the complexity/cost of components.

10. Exploiting Operationally Responsive Space authorities now in law for the Space and Missile Systems Center (SMC)

11. Pursue getting Rapid Capabilities Office-like authorities for SMC to speed up decision-making

12. Getting the AFPEO (Space) Service Acquisition Executive authority/responsibility.

13. Lowering the cost of launch by accepting appropriate risk and continue to use competition to drive costs to more reasonable levels

We have no choice but to react by turning technology in to our systems as fast, or faster, than our adversaries do.

Our adversaries are developing challenging strategic and tactical missiles, advanced communications technologies, and certainly, very advanced space superiority systems. Even commercial systems are turning their developments inside two years. And these new and faster systems we will build need to be resilient and affordable.

To accomplish these goals we simply must change BOTH what we are buying and how we are going to buy them to overcome the challenges we are currently facing.

Thomas “Tav” Taverney is a retired Air Force Major General and former Vice Commander of Air Force Space Command.