Air Force rapid prototyping effort achieving SpEC-tacular speeds

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Compared to traditional U.S. Defense Department agencies, the Air Force Space Enterprise Consortium (SpEC) moves at an extraordinary pace.

Exhibit A: Navigation Satellite Technology-3, an Air Force program focused on augmenting GPS with small satellites in geosynchronous orbit. Harris Corp. submitted a white paper in June and won an $80.4 million contract in December.

“It truly was remarkable,” said Jen Moore, director of Rapid Capabilities for Harris Space Superiority and Global Positioning Systems programs.

For smaller contracts, decisions are even faster. Three weeks after submitting a proposal through SpEC, the Air Force selected Blue Canyon Technologies to work on Tetra, a program aimed at exploring missions, tactics, techniques and procedures for microsatellites in geosynchronous orbit.

“We were on contract a couple weeks after that,” said Dan Hegel, Blue Canyon advanced development director. SpEC is “streamlining the acquisition process for small satellites, in particular.”

SpEC is an Air Force initiative focused on rapid prototyping of spacecraft, sensors, propulsion systems, ground stations and other space-related technology and services. Since early 2017, SpEC has awarded 37 prototype projects with a total value of $206 million.

Ten of those awards went to companies, nonprofits or academic institutions that don’t traditionally work with the Defense Department and 86 percent of the projects include significant contributions from groups other than traditional defense contractors, said Brian Delamater, SpEC executive director. Delamater is a senior program manager for Advanced Technology International, the company based in Summerville, South Carolina, that manages SpEC for the Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center in Los Angeles.

A Blue Canyon Technologies technician works on a 3U cubesat. The firm received a SpEC contract three weeks after proposal. Credit: Blue Canyon Technologies
A Blue Canyon Technologies technician works on a 3U cubesat. The firm received a SpEC contract three weeks after proposal. Credit: Blue Canyon Technologies

To date, SpEC programs have focused on satellites in low Earth and geostationary orbit as well as military satellite communications network studies, cybersecurity for military payloads flying on commercial or international spacecraft, ground stations for missile warning systems, missile warning data processing and concepts aimed at producing resilient GPS constellations.

“In my opinion, the SpEC is the one beautiful flower blooming in El Segundo,” said retired Air Force Col. David Anhault, president of Blue Residuum Space Alliances, a consulting firm based in Centreville, Virginia. “In the past 12 months, the SpEC has proved itself to be the most prolific and effective DoD agency in promoting rapid prototyping and acquisition reform.”

Instead of following traditional procurement, with a lengthy process of defining military requirements and soliciting proposals, SpEC relies on Other Transaction Authority (OTA) to award contracts. OTA is an acquisition process designed specifically for prototype projects.

“It’s about taking these new ideas and acting on them to get new capability to the warfighter as soon as possible,” said Moore, who spent 24 years in the Air Force and directed space forces for U.S. Central Command before joining Harris. “We are not locked into architectures intended to live for 10 or 15 years. We are looking at getting technology and capability into the warfighter’s hands soonest and then continue to evolve much more quickly than we used to.”

OTA rules allow government agencies to move from prototypes into production without holding a competition. Unlike traditional government procurement programs, OTAs also encourage government agencies and their suppliers to collaborate at various points in the solicitation process.

“Through this collaboration, SpEC’s members gain a deeper understanding of the government’s technology needs, while the government can learn about and leverage existing industry capabilities,” Delamater said in written response to questions. “The government ultimately receives better technology solutions.”

Frank Backes, senior vice president for Kratos Federal Space, said the dialogue is extremely helpful. Usually, as soon as a federal agency asks for proposals, “things go dark and you can’t talk to them,” Backes said.

After SpEC solicits proposals, communication continues. Companies can ask questions and get answers, making sure they understand their customer, Backes said. “If you were buying a car or a house, can you imagine not being able to talk to the people trying to sell it,” he asked.

As of April 1, SpEC had 277 members including 65 large companies, 202 small companies and 10 not-for-profit or academic institutions. Seventy-nine percent of SpEC members are not traditional defense contractors, Delamater said by email.

Annual dues for SpEC members range from $7,500 for large companies to $500 for small businesses, academic institutions and nonprofits. When a company wins a SpEC award, it must either show significant contribution from partners who are not traditional defense contractors or cover one-third of the cost of a program.

Roccor hardware on display at the Small Satellite Conference in 2018. The Colorado firm is contributing a deployable antenna for a SpEC project led by another company. Credit: SpaceNews
Roccor hardware on display at the Small Satellite Conference in 2018. The Colorado firm is contributing a deployable antenna for a SpEC project led by another company. Credit: SpaceNews

In 2019, the Air Force increased SpEC’s budget fivefold to $500 million. In the first three months of 2019, SpEC released eight solicitations. One is looking for ways to give military units quick access to national space systems to assist in decision making through a program called Tactical Exploitation of National Capabilities.

Another seven prototypes are in the early phase of solicitation and 10 more are expected in 2019. Upcoming SpEC projects focus on satellite servicing, protected tactical satellite communications, commercial space situational awareness, and small satellite constellations that can be updated with new technology every year or two.

What surprised SpEC members most was its speed. SpEC routinely awards contracts within 90 days of receiving proposals.

“I’ve been impressed,” said Chris Pearson, chief executive for Roccor, a small satellite component supplier based in Longmont, Colorado. Roccor is contributing a deployable antenna for a SpEC project led by another company.

The first inquiry from the prime contractor, who Pearson declined to name, came in late October. The prime contractor won the award in February and immediately held a kickoff meeting with its suppliers and government customer. “That is really quick for a space program,” Pearson said.

Speedy contracting is particularly helpful for small businesses because they can hire employees without worrying whether they will remain busy, Pearson said. “When programs take longer than you think they will, you can’t be as efficient,” Pearson said.

SpEC also is spurring new teaming arrangements.

Kratos, a defense company based in San Diego that specializes in spacecraft ground systems, is already working on several SpEC projects while bidding on others.

“SpEC gives the Air Force an opportunity to start programs that would have otherwise lagged,” Backes said. “Big programs take a very long time to get on contract and narrow the field of potential suppliers. Whereas initial SpEC awards are smaller and can be awarded to more than one company. It allows [the Air Force] to engage a broad community of potential suppliers.”

As a result of SpEC, Kratos is teaming with companies it hasn’t worked with before.

SpEC proposals might be 50 pages with 15 pages of technical information compared with major defense programs often requiring 1,000-page proposals. “If the technical volume is 15 pages, I can afford to be on more than one team,” Backes said.

Initial SpEC awards tend to be small, “but that’s the whole point,” Backes said. “The Air Force can do small awards and prototypes, then pick the best design and continue to move forward with that company.”

SpEC’s speedy contracting is impressive but “changing the way you put something on contract is not the end all be all,” Moore said. “We have to learn both on the government side and on the industry side how to change our processes to then take advantage of that. We are on contract. Now let’s get that capability out.”