Air Force vice chief says space procurement is on the right path

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Vice Chief of Staff Gen. Stephen Wilson: The reorganization of the Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center and the establishment of a rapid procurement office for space are just the initial steps in a continuing effort to get “better and faster,”

WASHINGTON — Air Force buyers of space systems are cutting red tape and removing layers of oversight to expedite programs, Vice Chief of Staff of the Air Force Gen. Stephen Wilson said on Wednesday.

Wilson said the reorganization of the Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center and the establishment of a rapid procurement office for space are just the initial steps in a continuing effort to get “better and faster,” he said in a Q&A session at an Air Force Association breakfast meeting.

Wilson repeated the line often used by Air Force leaders that the U.S. space force today is “the envy of the world” even though space is a contested domain and adversaries are trying to find ways to disrupt U.S. satellites.

The Air Force is building a “defendable architecture” to maintain the U.S. advantage in space, Wilson said. That requires training space operators and speeding up the acquisition process.

Months before President Trump directed the Pentagon to establish a separate military branch focused on space, the Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center began a broad reform effort known as SMC 2.0.

“They have experienced people that know space,” Wilson said of SMC. The problem has been the slow pace of procurements due to a culture built around stringent reviews, testing and layers of approvals. SMC is “working to change that culture,” Wilson said.

Congress last year directed the Air Force to stand up a Space Rapid Capabilities Office. Wilson predicted the Space RCO will be as successful as the organization it was modeled after, the Air Force RCO.

The Air Force RCO has earned praise for its flat organization and a faster decision making. The RCO model also is more mindful of the needs of military operators in the field, said Wilson. “The RCO is designed around the warfighter.” There are small teams that bring together contracting and acquisition managers, testers and operators. “There is very thin oversight,” said Wilson.

The Air Force RCO reports to only five senior leaders: the secretary of the Air Force, the chief of staff and the acquisition executive; and the undersecretary of defense for research and engineering, and the undersecretary of defense for acquisition and sustainment. The absence of middle layers helps move programs much faster, he said. The Space RCO reports directly to the commander of Air Force Space Command.

“We think that between the Space RCO and SMC 2.0, that they can provide good cadence to be able to bring capabilities to the space force faster,” Wilson said.

The reorganization of SMC will be fully completed by December 2019, Deanna Ryals, chief partnership officer at SMC, said last week at the 2018 Global MilSatcom conference in London.

Under SMC 2.0, program offices focused on different missions — like satellite communications, launch, missile warning and GPS satellites — will have to work as a horizontal enterprise so technologies can be shared and schedules can be better synchronized.

SMC has identified nine “pace setter” efforts that will “test our capabilities with a flatter decision making body,” Ryals said.

The nine projects include:

Consolidation of offices that work with foreign allies. “We are looking at how to speak with our allies with one voice,” said Ryals. If the United Kingdom, for example, wants to partner with the U.S. in space programs, it would have to work with one office that deals with satellite communications, and another office that handles navigation. Allies should be able go to just one office to work out agreements, said Ryals.

Blackjack. This is an experimental low Earth orbit constellation that is now managed by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and a project in which SMC is becoming more involved. “We are considering what missions to put into different satellites to add resilience to the architecture,” Ryals said. “We can go fast with the right authorities.”

Protected tactical satcom. This is a multi-year program to develop a secure satellite communications network for deployed forces. SMC believes it can accelerate the program by using rapid prototyping methods.

Product line improvements. This means building satellites using standardized buses, for example. “How do we get away from making an individual programmatic stovepipe decision for every bus that is going to host a payload?” Ryals asked. “Why can’t we look across the enterprise?”

Business processes. “Leaders have asked why haven’t we been able to do SMC 2.0 for the last 30 years,” Ryals said. “It’s because there’s a lot of process, legislation, rules.” Some have to be removed. “We are taking authorities and starting with a clean sheet.”

Cyber defense. “How can we start to address cyber concerns across the enterprise and cyber conditions rather than program by program?” Ryals said.

• Launch mission management office. Historically SMC thinks in terms of “one launch, one mission,” Ryals said. That creates inefficiency. “There’s a lot of room on these rockets. If we know the timeline, we can find R&D projects” to take advantage of the capacity.

• Ground enterprise. This is about making sure that the ground segment of space programs — the ground stations, user terminals, command and control systems — are in working order by the time satellites are launched. “We are looking at the ground piece from an enterprise view,” said Ryals, “so not every mission area is developing their own piece of this.”