L3Harris developed the Navigation Satellite Technology-3 mission under an $80.4 million contract awarded in 2018 by the Air Force Research Laboratory. Credit: AFRL Credit: Harris Corp. illustration

WASHINGTON — The Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center is looking to make changes in the management of its fast growing Space Enterprise Consortium. In a Request for Information posted Aug. 20, SMC announced it is “performing market research to help inform the acquisition strategy to recompete the Space Enterprise Consortium Other Transaction Agreement.” Responses are due Sept. 16.

Created by SMC less than two years ago, the Space Enterprise Consortium, known as SpEC, has quickly become a central player in SMC’s efforts to bridge the cultural gap between military buyers and commercial space startups and small businesses.

The consortium manages the development of pre-production prototypes of space systems, including satellites, payloads and ground systems. To date more than 50 prototype projects have been awarded by the SpEC.

Using special contracting authorities, the SpEC solicits bids from member companies and ensures projects are awarded to nontraditional military vendors. The Air Force in November 2017 selected Charleston, South Carolina-based Advanced Technology International to manage the consortium. The company was awarded a five-year agreement to oversee up to $100 million worth of projects.

The RFI suggests SMC wants to change how the SpEC is managed due to concerns about the security of companies’ sensitive information. A major issue in recent years has been the “protection of information and cybersecurity,” says the RFI. “In order to promote cybersecurity within the consortium’s members, SMC expects the consortium manager to have knowledge of existing government requirements and help members meet those requirements. RFI respondents may also suggest additional ways to advance the cybersecurity health of members within the consortium.”

All SpEC projects are awarded under the so-called Other Transaction Authority (OTA) model which creates partnerships between the government and vendors and both agree to share development costs. These collaborations are not subject to some of the regulations that apply to Federal Acquisition Regulation-based acquisitions.

The SpEC has grown rapidly, with 324 members to date. The Air Force recently raised the ceiling for SpEC OTA contracts to $500 million and officials have hinted they want to allot even more money for SpEC projects in the future.

SMC wants to continue its use of a consortium and the OTA model for prototyping space technologies, the RFI says. It is seeking responses from industry and other interested parties detailing proposed acquisition approaches and capabilities for managing a space prototyping consortium. “This company will be expected to manage a consortium of large and small organizations ranging from academic institutions to traditional and non-traditional defense contractors.”

Unlike the FAR, the OTA consortium model allows government and industry to “communicate more openly, from requirement generation to the proposal stage,” said the SpEC website. Officials say the process moves faster than traditional procurements and helps the Air Force attract a diverse pool of suppliers.

SMC did not comment on why it is recompeting the SpEC management contract only two years into ATI’s five-year deal. An industry official who does business with consortium members said the RFI came as a complete surprise. According to this source, “It is quite puzzling indeed why anyone would want to recompete given the importance and excellence of what ATI has achieved.”

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...