Air Force, Space Force procurement offices try to keep programs moving during pandemic
WASHINGTON — Big-ticket contracts for space launch services and for the development of a new intercontinental ballistic missile are scheduled to be awarded this year, and that is still the plan, senior officials said.
With thousands of program managers and contracting officers working from home and only communicating by phone or video chat, paperwork is still moving virtually through the system. While the COVID-19 pandemic is creating unprecedented challenges, officials insist they are doing what they can to keep the Pentagon’s contracting machine in motion.
“We intend to the maximum extent possible to stay on track,” Lt. Gen. John Thompson, commander of the Space and Missile Systems Center, told SpaceNews last week.
SMC is reviewing bids from launch providers competing for two five-year contracts to be awarded in mid-2020 for national security space launch services. Thompson said the source selection work has not stopped since SMC shifted to telework two weeks ago. Some launch providers are developing new rockets for the competition but Thompson said that so far none have indicated they will not be able to stay in the race due to the pandemic.
“However, if any of our vendors or support contractors have problems maintaining schedules because of problems related to closures in their state, obviously we’ll consider that as we go forward,” he said.
‘As much normality as we can’
The senior acquisition executive for the Department of the Air Force Will Roper told reporters on Friday that his office has adopted a “wartime posture” and pressing forward with procurements.
“All source selections are on track,” including the launch services award and the Ground Based Strategic Deterrent contract, he said. “GBSD, space launch, we expect to award on time. We are still doing virtual program reviews, trying to keep as much normality as we can.”
One potential hurdle are the limitations to accessing classified websites from home computers and cellphones. Space and nuclear weapons programs have significant classified components which means that discussions on these projects have to be conducted in buildings like he Pentagon where there are SCIFs, short for sensitive compartmented information facilities.
“We don’t have a capability for remote SCIFs,” said Roper. “If we’re sheltering in place, we can’t have people going to SCIFs.”
Roper’s office is investigating the possibility of adapting a secret-level communications system that the Air Force has been developing for battlefield use and make it available to acquisition professionals so they can access classified data from National Security Agency-approved phones or tablets.
“We’ve been developing this capability for ABMS,” said Roper, of the Advanced Battle Management System that is envisioned as a virtual network for commanders to access and share information across the globe. “Part of what we’re trying to demonstrate is the ability to push secret level data to phones and tablets but securely in an NSA approved method.”
But Roper acknowledged this idea is a long shot because it would require changes to strict security policies. He said pursuing these changes “could be an option” if remote work becomes more the norm than the exception in the future.
Cash flow key for small companies
DoD leaders said keeping the flow of contracts moving is key for suppliers that are running out of cash during the pandemic. Roper said he worries about small businesses that have developed important technologies for national security and are now struggling.
“We are going to have to do things differently with small businesses than we do with our primes,” he said. The Air Force in recent years has stood up venture-style programs that award contracts to small businesses that have promising technologies. “We’ll continue to award every SBIR [Small Business Innovation Research] we have available,” Roper said.
To shore up the industrial base, he said, “within current statutes, we’ve directed all contracting officers to shift their practices of working with industry.”
DoD on March 20 announced measures to increase progress payments to contractors and subcontractors. “Cash flow and liquidity are everything,” said Roper. Program offices are being told to “award earlier if possible.”
It is however the responsibility of prime contractors to pass DoD money down to smaller suppliers.
“The Department has a high expectation level that prime companies are ensuring cash flow is moving to small businesses in their respective supply chains,” Pentagon spokesman Lt. Col. Mike Andrews said in a statement.
The Pentagon’s largest contractor Lockheed Martin on Friday announced it will advance more than $50 million to its small- and medium-sized suppliers.