Space strategy review could lead to changes in how Air Force buys technologies

Air Force Secretary Wilson: “We are doing a complete review of how we acquire space systems."

ORLANDO, FLA. — National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster said faster development of technologies will be an important piece of the nation’s strategy for combating enemies that threaten U.S. access to outer space.

“We must accelerate the transformation of our space architecture,” McMaster said on Wednesday at a meeting of the National Space Council. Satellites and ground systems, for example, have to be updated so they can survive physical and electronic attacks. This will require the Pentagon to speed up its development cycle and push technologies out of the lab faster.

Most of this responsibility falls on the U.S. Air Force, which oversees 90 percent of the military’s space procurement budget. For fiscal year 2019, the Pentagon requested $8.5 billion for space modernization programs.

“The Air Force has a significant role in innovation in space,” Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson said Thursday at the Air Force Association’s air warfare symposium.

“We are doing a complete review of how we acquire space systems,” Wilson said. This is a broad issue that touches on many aspects of the military’s buying culture, she said. One of the changes has to be about “how do we think about capabilities in space?”

The agency that oversees most space procurement programs, the Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center, may undergo a reorganization, Wilson said. One of the problems is that programs are “stove piped” and need to “cross over” more. “We have to figure out how do we move more quickly, how do we spin on from commercial space?”

China’s advances in space are driving this push. Wilson said Russia is considered a military threat, being a nuclear power that takes “intimidating actions against its neighbors.” But China is what worries the space community the most because of the fast pace of its innovation.

The Air Force has seen much success with its “rapid capabilities office,” which led the development of the B-21 stealth bomber and the X-37 space plane. But Wilson cautioned that not every program can follow that model.

Change must happen across the board, not just in RCO programs, she said. “My message to industry and to the broader public is that we are trying to do things differently, take bureaucracy out of the way of program managers. We want to give program managers an umbrella under which we are willing to run programs so they don’t have to spend a lot of time managing the Pentagon.”

Wilson wants to see program managers, on their own initiative, make use of existing authorities to move projects more quickly. “It should be easy for for a program manager to say: ‘We want to do this differently and not have to create our own charter.’”

Randall Walden, the director of Air Force rapid capabilities office, said it is no coincidence that programs like the B-21 and the X-37 moved faster than they would have under the traditional procurement process. “You have to do the systems engineering right,” he said during a panel discussion at the AFA event. “Launching an X-37, doing experimentation in space, all that needs system engineering.”

The RCO operates under existing regulations and does not require waivers, Walden said. The defense acquisition regulations have provisions for how to move programs quickly. “It’s the culture that has to change,” he said. “If you’re mired down in bureaucracies and processes, ask why?”

For space innovation, what is needed is a “a little bit more risk,” Walden told SpaceNews. “It doesn’t mean you have to do things that don’t make engineering sense. But you can take some more risk, you can make a decision, you can get on contract. Those are things you control.”