Air Force space buyers trying to make change happen
LOS ANGELES — Lt. Gen. John Thompson has been on a warpath against his own organization’s entrenched ways of doing business. And he admits that change doesn’t happen easily or quickly at the Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center, a 65-year-old institution that develops and builds satellites, and decides what rockets will launch them into orbit.
“When I got here two years ago, I found an organization that was used to delivering very high quality systems, but there was not a whole lot of focus on schedule and cost,” Thompson said last week in a briefing to defense officials at SMC headquarters attended by a SpaceNews reporter.
For the past year, Thompson has led a reorganization known as SMC 2.0. “We had an old business model organization,” he said. The goal is to turn SMC into a more agile enterprise that can churn out new systems at a faster pace, keep up with technological advances in the private sector and stay ahead of adversaries that are targeting U.S. satellites.
A deep-rooted organization like SMC with more than 5,000 employees and a $7 billion budget is not going to change overnight, but it’s taking small steps. Program offices that operated in isolation were moved into a more horizontal command structure; paperwork requirements have been reduced; program reviews have been simplified, and Thompson has delegated authority to lower level managers to help expedite contract awards.
Pressure from DoD, Congress
During the tenure of former deputy defense secretary and later acting defense secretary Patrick Shanahan, SMC became the whipping boy of military space procurement. In a report to Congress in March 2018, Shanahan blamed the slow pace of innovation in space on the Air Force’s procurement process. He and Mike Griffin, undersecretary of defense for research and engineering, advocated for the establishment of a Space Development Agency, a move viewed as a rebuke of SMC. The defense committees on Capitol Hill also have been critical of the Air Force’s space acquisitions and have called for changes.
The Space Development Agency is undergoing its own problems and is unlikely to pose a competitive threat to SMC. Nevertheless, SMC is trying to show that it can be more agile.
One of the programs billed as a test case for SMC 2.0 is a new missile warning constellation of satellites in geosynchronous and polar orbits known as the next-generation Overhead Persistent Infrared system, or next-gen OPIR.
Next-gen OPIR was conceived as a replacement for the Space Based Infrared System, a program that was chronically over budget and behind schedule. Up until late 2017, the Air Force was planning to develop a new system to replace SBIRS that would have been ready to launch by 2029. The leaders of the Air Force Space Command and U.S. Strategic Command pushed back, arguing that the nation could not wait that long to get more advanced missile warning sensors. The Air Force in response proposed next-gen OPIR as a fast-track program that could be ready to launch by 2023. It would accelerate satellite development by using special authorities given to DoD by Congress in the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2016, called Section 804 authorities.
SMC was prepared to move faster but ran into funding troubles that were out of its control. The Air Force did not have enough money in the 2018 and 2019 budgets to speed up the procurement of next-gen OPIR so the target delivery date slipped to 2025. Reaching that goal is now in question as it requires transferring $632 million into the 2019 budget from future-year budgets. The large reprogramming request is problematic as Congress seeks to fund other priorities like disaster relief for Air Force bases.
Col. Tony Meeks, the program manager for OPIR, said that using 804 authorities would have made it possible to get the first satellite on orbit by 2023. “You just have to accelerate that money into a shorter time horizon,” he told SpaceNews. “It’s not that we have slowed the program down because of technical requirements.”
Section 804 allows DoD to compress the development cycle by waiving procurement regulations. “It provides smart opportunities,” said Meeks. “It does not say ‘run careless, run fast, run stupid.’” It says that “where you have low risk, don’t go through the same archaic, stilted process.”
Using these authorities, “we were driving to a 2023 launch,” said Meeks. “Then the reality of the budget hit.” Will it happen by 2025? “That is entirely dependent on the funding Congress provides us.”
Programs still take years
Other programs that SMC is trying to accelerate are satellite communications systems. One is called Protected Tactical Satcom (PTS), which seeks to provide cyber-secure communications to military forces. The program has been in development for several years and includes ground systems, terminals and satellites. Another is called Evolved Strategic Satcom (ESS), a system envisioned as a replacement to the Advanced Extra High Frequency (AEHF) constellation that provides nuclear-hardened communications for national authorities.
The target delivery date for PTS is 2028, and 2030 for ESS. Even on an accelerated schedule, it will take nearly a decade to field these systems.
“We are doing early work in development, maturing the technology so when we’re ready to go purchase the technology it’s mature,” said Col. Dennis Bythewood, program executive officer for space development at SMC.
Bythewood said SMC it trying to avoid a repeat of the AEHF and SBIRS programs. Those satellites ended up costing anywhere from $1 billion to nearly $2 billion per unit. “One of the reasons for the high cost was that the technology stretch we had to make to meet the mission need was large,” he said in an interview. “Now we want to do the technology phase in prototyping, then walk into an assembly, integration and test program.”
There are still many “open trades” to be made in these programs before the Air Force can move forward, said Bythewood. “There is still work we need to do with industry to prototype our sensors for ESS. Will we use a military bus? A commercial bus? What are the trades and modifications?” For PTS, “do we buy communications as a service? Host payloads on commercial satellites? Build satellites of our own?”
With ESS, he said, “you can argue the program doesn’t start until a couple of years from now, until we get early development work done. That allows us to move quickly in the next phase.”
To plan for the future, SMC is working with Aerospace Corp. to figure out a new process for procuring satellites dubbed “continuous production agility.” The idea is to take advantage of commercial satellite production lines to build military constellations faster.
SMC’s satellite business has a “laboratory feel,” said Thompson. “We build one, change it, build another one.” The thinking in continuous production agility is to use standard bus production lines and put different payloads on them.
Jeff Emdee, general manager of Aerospace Corp.’s space based sensing division, said programs like ESS, next-gen OPIR and GPS are candidates for the use of standard buses. Continuous production agility, or CPA, is part of SMC 2.0, Emdee told SpaceNews. “Today we acquire fully integrated systems, but the payload is the technology we care about,” he said. In CPA, the Air Force could expand its supplier base and could buy buses and payloads from multiple vendors. “The current system locks us into a single vendor integrated solution,” he said. “If we can create a modular bus and modular payloads, you get production efficiencies.”
Aerospace is working with SMC’s Space Enterprise Consortium to design an interface that would be shared with vendors so they can ensure payloads are compatible with buses. “With a standard interface we can bring in new solutions,” said Emdee.
Today satellites are not replaced until they run out of service life. With the CPA approach, SMC would not have to wait years to deploy a new satellite because the manufacturing would be simple, he said. “Our adversaries are moving at a faster cycle than our 12-year design cycle. We’re not actually going for cost savings as the primary goal. We want to outpace the threat.”
Bythewood said the CPA concept might be a better fit for low Earth orbit constellations that require dozens of satellites. “It’s easy to get your head around it when you have large numbers,” he said. SMC’s constellations of satellites in medium and geosynchronous Earth orbits have short production runs and may not benefit from mass production.
Officials recognize that procurement reforms and reorganizations are no silver bullets. Most of SMC’s budget today is tied up in existing programs so it could take years to see what the outcome of ongoing reforms might be.
“We have to deliver programs of record, that’s how are investments are structured, that’s what we’re required to do,” said Col. Jim Reynolds, senior materiel leader at SMC’s Space Superiority Systems Directorate.
“Over time we have to evolve, shift investments and requirements,” he said. “It takes time because we still have to meet our current program demands.”