Will Roper, assistant secretary of the Air Force for acquisition, technology and logistics. Credit: U.S/ Air Force

WASHINGTON — The Senate version of the 2020 National Defense Authorization Act that creates a Space Force within the Department of the Air Force also proposes a major reorganization of the office that manages the acquisition of Air Force weapons systems.

The legislation would break up the office of the assistant secretary of the Air Force for acquisition and reassign space programs to a new organization led by a principal assistant to the secretary of the Air Force for space acquisition and integration. The Senate bill argues that a separate acquisition executive for space is needed to give space programs proper attention and ensure somebody is accountable for their performance.

Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics Will Roper says he understands the Senate’s motivation, but believes spinning off a new acquisition organization could create more problems than it would solve.

“I’m really sympathetic” to Congress’ desire for better performance, Roper told SpaceNews on Wednesday at the DefenseNews annual conference in Arlington, Virginia.

But moving space programs into an independent acquisition shop would add cost and inefficiency, Roper said. His staff has several hundred contracting experts, lawyers and engineers supporting both air and space programs. The staff handles on average 25,000 program decisions per year. If a new acquisition executive is added for space, these people would have two bosses. “It’s human nature that people want to have one boss,” said Roper. “It would be like an organization that shares the same body but has two heads,” Roper said. “It would be hard to manage and it would end up making space a second class citizen.” Another alternative would be to hire a whole new staff for space but that would be very costly.

Another reason to not break up the acquisition office is that some of the Air Force’s next-generation weapon systems are being designed so they can receive data from space. In these so-called “multi-domain” programs, there would be a tight interdependence between Air Force and Space Force programs, and separating them would be detrimental, said Roper. “We see a need for architectures that span air and space. .. A single approach to communications and networking, and a consistent data architecture,” he said.

Examples of multi-domain programs are the Advanced Battle Management System that would feed data to all weapons systems; and the Next-Generation Air Dominance program that will develop new aircraft. These will require a shared enterprise cloud, said Roper. “That is necessary for their success, and having two separate acquisition executives would make it tough for these programs.”

Although he disagrees with the Senate proposal, Roper believes the bill is well intended. “I understand the spirit of what they’re trying to do.”

What will really help space programs more so than its own acquisition executive is to have their own budgets once the Space Force is established, Roper said. Having a service that advocates for space funding will be a huge change. Currently air and space programs compete for resources in the the Air Force’s budget. “There are always battles between air and space,” he said.

The Space Force leaders will have to fight for space dollars. “How much money they get is what really will help space,” said Roper. “Once the funds are in the budget, then it’s up to the acquisition people to deliver systems as quickly as possible.”

The Air Force is working to accelerate the acquisition process and space programs are benefiting from that. But the Defense Department will never move as fast as the National Reconnaissance Office, which has a more streamlined organization. “The extra hoops in the Pentagon take forever to get through,” Roper said.

A separate space acquisition office would provide some benefits such as greater specialization and focus, Roper said. “But would the benefits outweigh the negatives? I don’t think so.”

During a Q&A session at the Defense News conference, Roper said he frequently meets with committee staff on Capitol Hill and has discussed these issues in detail.

“I try to provide useful advice and let Congress make its choice,” he said. “Whatever the choice is, we’re ready to fully support.”

Sandra Erwin writes about military space programs, policy, technology and the industry that supports this sector. She has covered the military, the Pentagon, Congress and the defense industry for nearly two decades as editor of NDIA’s National Defense...