Wilson: Space programs can move faster, but Congress has to tolerate some failures

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There is underlying tension between the “go big” philosophy embraced by Air Force senior leaders and skeptical lawmakers who would prefer a more cautious approach.

WASHINGTON — Space has been a major topic in Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson’s recent public appearances. She has pushed several messages: The Air Force budget makes “bold moves” in space. The future is all about “defendable space.” And this means developing “more capable, more defendable satellites.”

Congress for the most part is in agreement with the Air Force agenda. Funding for space programs was bumped by 8 percent in the 2018 defense budget. Appropriators approved most of what the Air Force wanted, and then some.

But there is still underlying tension between the “go fast” philosophy embraced by Trump administration officials and military leaders, and skeptical lawmakers who would prefer a more cautious approach.

Wilson’s take is that you can’t have it both ways. There is some risk involved in shifting money from the production of current designs into the development of next-generation satellites. But if Congress wants faster and innovative space programs, the tradeoff will be less predictability and possibly some failures.

“There is risk. It’s actually harder to go fast,” Wilson said on Friday at an Air Force Association event on Capitol Hill.

She will have to explain that to Congress in writing. The omnibus spending bill passed March 22 asks the Air Force for a detailed analysis of planned space procurements.

“There is a concern that the Air Force is about to embark on another near simultaneous recapitalization of its space architecture,” appropriators wrote.

New development programs are planned for space situation awareness; positioning, navigation, and timing; weather; missile warning; wideband communications, and protected communications. The bill directs the secretary of the Air Force to submit a report in 60 days to the congressional defense committees explaining the recapitalization plans for each major space system. The bill also asks her to “certify” that decisions to recapitalize versus continuing production of current designs “pose acceptable risks to constellation sustainment and the acquisition workforce, and considers budgetary constraints.”

The same language appeared in the Senate Appropriations defense subcommittee markup in November.

Wilson said the risks are justified. “We will be very direct about it,” she said. “We will explain to Congress that they call experiments ‘experiments’ for a reason.”

Some projects will not work, “and you learn from them,” she said. “We recognize that some things will fail. … There will be off-ramps.”

Wilson believes the Air Force should embrace its cultural past, when it took big chances on technologies that paved the way for the weapons systems that are in service today. That mindset changed over the past couple of decades when attention shifted to “oversight and process,” she said. “We got away from those roots and we are going back to them in order to prevail in the 21st century.”

Wilson recalled that when the U.S. military decided to seize control of the Iraqi city of Mosul from the Islamic State in 2016, the decision was announced six months before the offensive started. That only can be done when you control the timing of an operation, she said. “In future wars we don’t expect we’ll be able to do that. If you have an adversary that is innovating rapidly,” things like oversight and process become less important than the actual capability, she added. “But we have to be able to do both.”

The scheme laid out by the Air Force, however, faces steep challenges. While everyone agrees that the Pentagon and the defense industry have to be more agile and build more resilient space systems, it is not clear that the government has set the conditions to make that happen, experts caution.

Former Air Force procurement official Claire Leon calls effort to accelerate space procurements a “daunting task.”

Leon, the former director of launch systems at the Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center, said it will be difficult to get away from acquisition processes that have been developed over the past 50 years. The procurement system was “designed for full coordination, not agility,” she told SpaceNews in a recent interview.

Leon agreed with Wilson that a lot of innovation happened in the 1960s and 70s because there was a “willingness to work through failures.” Today’s programs have become so big that they “can’t fail.”

Former Pentagon official Jamie Morin said the 2018 budget shows some willingness on the part of the Congress to embrace the Air Force’s space modernization strategy, but it remains to be seen how much leeway lawmakers will give.

“The Air Force clearly is making a serious effort to move to more rapid acquisition,” said Morin, who is executive director of the Center for Space Policy and Strategy and vice president of the Aerospace Corporation.

“When you embrace rapid speed you do tend to accept greater risk of variation from the plan,” Morin told SpaceNews. “We have seen that historically. But the question is ‘How do the Department of Defense and Congress react when the inevitable variations from the plan occur?’”

People now say they are willing to accept more risk in space acquisitions to get capabilities to the force faster. “But it’s one thing to say you accept risk in general versus accepting it in a specific program,” Morin said. The test will be when something goes wrong. “That’s the challenge they’ll face in the years ahead.”