Air Force pressing on with space programs amid uncertainty about future reorganization
WASHINGTON — The business of developing and launching satellites to orbit is continuing apace in the Air Force even as a major reorganization looms.
“We’re executing exactly the way we’ve been executing to try to speed up acquisition,” said Lt. Gen. Arnold Bunch Jr., military deputy at the office of the assistant secretary of the Air Force for acquisition.
Bunch did not comment specifically on President Trump’s directive to create a Space Force but said the Air Force is moving forward with its space mission regardless of what happens next. In a letter to airmen last week, Air Force leaders said forming a separate military branch for space as President Trump directed will be “thorough, deliberate and inclusive process.” They cautioned airmen to “not expect any immediate moves or changes.” And they called on the force to stay focused “as we continue to accelerate space warfighting capabilities.”
Bunch insisted during a meeting with reporters on Thursday that the Air Force procurement workforce is doing exactly that. “I’m not going to speculate on anything else,” he said. “We’ll go through the process. We will let the deliberative process play out.”
House Armed Services Strategic Forces Subcommittee Chairman Mike Rogers, an advocate of a separate Space Force, said he expects deliberations to create a new military branch for space will begin in next year’s defense authorization bill.
Rogers repeatedly has slammed the Air Force’s slow procurement process as a reason why space programs should be put under a different management structure. He said rival countries like Russia and China are developing anti-satellite weapons and other space warfare technologies at a rapid pace and the United States is at risk of losing its current dominance and access to space.
Bunch acknowledged the criticism but noted the Air Force is changing procurement methods to develop and deploy new systems faster.
“We already made commitments that we are going to speed things up,” Bunch said. “We are going to continue to do those things,” he added. “I appreciate his interest in what we’re doing,” Bunch said of Rogers. “But my opinion is different. I see things speeding up. We’re delegating authorities. We are standing up a space rapid capabilities office.”
Change is happening, Bunch insisted. “I’m already seeing differences. And I’m confident that those are the tip of the iceberg. We need to demonstrate to Congressman Rogers that can do those things, and show him so we can change his mind.”
Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson has directed buyers and program managers to simplify paperwork, eliminate layers of bureaucracy and speed up the contracting process. “We’ve been given timelines by the Secretary,” Bunch said. “We’re marching down that path.”
Lack of industry competition
Another concern for the Air Force is attracting new suppliers from the burgeoning commercial space industry. In satellite programs, for instance, the Air Force relies on a small cadre of contractors. Only one company, Lockheed Martin, makes Global Positioning System navigation satellites. When the Pentagon sought competitive bids, only Lockheed expressed interest as other satellite manufacturers didn’t believe they could challenge the incumbent’s entrenched position.
Only two companies, Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman, are qualified to produce satellites and sensors to detect ballistic missile launches. So when the Air Force recently decided to begin modernizing its constellation within the next five years, it gave Lockheed the contract for the geostationary orbit satellites and Northrop got the polar orbit satellites. An open competition was not a realistic option.
The Air Force has clearly benefited from competition in the launch market since SpaceX successfully moved to challenge a monopoly held by United Launch Alliance. Just last week, SpaceX won a $130 million launch contract for its Falcon Heavy rocket. Launches in this size category previously have averaged more than twice or three times that price.
“We always want competition,” said Bunch.
Although there are no new competitors in the GPS and next-generation missile warning satellite programs, the government can still make sure incumbent contractors charge a “fair price,” he said. “Even in an environment of sole source, we can get effective cost and pricing data. We’re able to do that because of the history, and working with the companies and the technical knowledge we’ve got.”
Bunch said the Air Force is looking at other ways to attract new vendors. One option under consideration is to adapt the model the Air Force used to buy the next-generation B-21 stealth bomber from Northrop Grumman. The bomber is being developed with “open mission systems” so future software and electronics upgrades can be bought from commercial suppliers as new products are developed.
“I’d love to have competition,” said Bunch. Some industry executives have argued that the Air Force is partly to blame because it writes program requirements in ways that favor the incumbents. Military procurement officials reject that criticism, but industry analysts continue to see barriers around the defense market for newcomers.
Bunch said the open mission systems approach could be adapted for satellites. “That is something we are looking at. That’s what we did in the B-21. We’re looking at how to apply it more broadly in other platforms, and looking at space areas as well.”