Slow acquisition can’t be a national security threat, senior space general says

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WASHINGTON – An acquisition system that’s been called slow and ponderous can’t be allowed to become a national security threat, said Maj. Gen. David Thompson, vice commander of Air Force Space Command, elaborating that the military can no longer afford to have programs that are “years behind schedule and billions over budget.”

“To be frank, the government approach, and our approach to space acquisition operations, and our approach to our relationship and partnerships with the industrial sector — while they’re strong — have to be relooked at, renewed, refigured, and refreshed,” Thompson said, speaking June 2 at a meeting of the Aerospace Industries Association and U.S. Chamber of Commerce here.

Maj. Gen. David Thompson, vice commander of U.S. Air Force Space Command. Credit: USAF
Maj. Gen. David Thompson, vice commander of U.S. Air Force Space Command. Credit: USAF

 Long delays with programs could put the U.S. behind adversaries in the increasingly contested space environment, the general said.

“As we’re preparing to buy the next-generation GPS 3 satellites, our estimate from award of the production contract to first flight is six years,” Thompson said. “The missile-warning replacement architecture — brand new system, brand new capability — our estimate from award of the production contract to first flight is 10 years. Our adversaries operate on cycles that are at least twice as fast.”

“So in that six years, in that 10 years, that we’re going to design and field capabilities that have to operate through and in the face of a new threat, our adversaries are going to turn over their systems, their capabilities, their [tactics, techniques, and procedures], and their approach,” he continued.

“That is absolutely a failed strategy; it’s a Maginot Line strategy,” Thompson said, referring to the static defense line the French set up before World War II that was defeated by Germany’s new, highly mobile “blitzkrieg” tactics.

Part of the problem are the layers of bureaucracy currently involved in space acquisition, Thompson said — a topic that’s become a key criticism from officials ranging from Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson to Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Alabama),chairman of the House Armed Services strategic forces subcommittee.

Thompson said that officials at the Air Force’s Space and Missile Systems Center calculated that “for a major acquisition decision milestone that goes to the highest levels of the Department of Defense — between the time the program manager decides to begin efforts to get a milestone decision — there are 50 layers of activities and events that must be accomplished for that program manager to get in front of the decision maker.”

“It doesn’t matter whether the decision is yes or no, there are 50 steps along the way, and while officially none of those people can say no, none of them can certainly say yes,” Thompson continued. “They can ask a lot of questions and they can ask for [reevaluations] and ask for build-backs, and they can take time to review and they can take time to analyze, and by the time all that is done they’ve added certainly months and in some cases years to the process.”

Space acquisition decisions don’t always needs to go to upper echelons of the Pentagon, and Thompson said Space Command supports Wilson’s avowed effort to move decision-making power towards service commanders — something that would align space more closely with acquisition decisions in the air, land, and seas domains.

Innovation, however, requires risk, and Thompson said that the government and its industry partners are going to have to re-acquire a tolerance for things sometimes going wrong.

“We simply have lost the ability to judge and handle risk in a reasonable fashion,” he said. “We have become so conservative. We’ve done it for a lot of good reasons: in the late 1990s and early 2000s, we had a lot of issues and struggles with the procurement of our space capabilities, but I believe we’ve become so conservative in our approach, that we’ve lost the concept of effective risk management, understanding where, when, and how to take risk, and when not to.”

Some of the government’s traditional industry partners have also become risk-adverse because they’ve “mirrored” what they’re seeing in the U.S. government, Thompson said.

But “the first and foremost culprit and entity that needs to change and address their problems is the U.S. government,” Thompson said, and it can start to do that by working more closely with industry.

“There are commercial space capabilities today that are there and are working that absolutely lead not just the nation, [not just] lead and outpace the U.S. Air Force, but also outpace the world,” Thompson said. “We have to learn and understand how to leverage them in a commercial sense like we never have before.”