OpEd: The Greatest Threat to U.S. Space Dominance

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After the end of the Cold War, the range of threats facing our nation seemed limited and discernible. We could plan, prepare and, if necessary, pre-empt a potential threat. But the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, and more recently hurricanes Katrina and Rita, have demonstrated that our knowledge is limited and that our nation remains vulnerable to man-made and natural disasters.

The value of space was again demonstrated during the Katrina relief effort. Without space, it might have taken weeks to fully respond to the crisis.

For example, the Air Force’s Defense Meteorological Satellite Program spacecraft revealed to emergency management agencies those communities that lacked electrical power. Commercial remote sensing companies provided high-resolution satellite imagery to relief organizations, which helped determine the extent of the damage in specific areas. And, our Global Positioning System (GPS) helped our response units navigate areas devoid of landmarks or signs of previous existence.

Disasters like Katrina and Rita have helped us to appreciate space as a critical enabler. However, I still do not believe we have fully recognized just how important space is to our country.

Space Dependence

Four years ago, the U.S. Commission on National Security Space found that the United States was more dependent upon space than any other nation, although we often take space for granted. But if you look closely, you will see that most of our commercial sector now depends upon space assets. And our military looks to space so much that it would be difficult for our forces to operate without the unique capabilities — such as communications and navigation — space provides.

The Space Commission identified several scenarios in which our dominance in space could be significantly diminished. A potential terrorist attack, another war in the Middle East, or tensions over Taiwan headed the commission’s list of worries.

While I share many of the concerns expressed by the Space Commission, I believe that a new, more ominous threat has arisen.

Our nation’s dominance in space is being challenged not so much from outside this country as from within. In many respects, we have become our own worst enemy.

Over the last decade, we have done everything possible to sabotage our own space supremacy. And we have done this in every area of government, at every possible turn. Our warfighters, program managers, contractors, and yes, even Congress, are responsible, and all are guilty of ignoring the warning signs.

Our nation has no rival when it comes to building world-class satellite systems. We have an extremely talented industrial base, outstanding research laboratories and brilliant engineers. Most of our satellite systems operate years beyond their life expectancy and out-perform even our own high expectations.

Greatest Challenge

The problem is not the operation of our satellites. Once they get into space, our satellites rarely disappoint. Rather, our greatest challenge lies in the development and building of those satellites.

Many national security acquisition programs continue to experience significant technical problems, schedule delays and cost growth. The Defense Science Board (DSB) concluded that cost has replaced mission success; unrealistic estimates have led to unrealistic budgets; and inadequate definition of requirements has resulted in the introduction of new requirements late in the development cycle.

The problems identified by the DSB only scratched the surface. Witnesses from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) have testified that most original baselines for many space programs — perhaps the most important point in the acquisition process — are flawed from the very beginning. Cost, schedule and performance estimates used for the baseline, in almost every space program, have been prepared with highly inaccurate, or at best, incomplete, information.

Some would suggest that the best way to fix this problem is to hire better program managers and system engineers. I certainly agree that the absence of trained and experienced space professionals has hindered the government’s ability to manage these programs.

Acquisition Breakdown

However, as the DSB and GAO have discovered, the deck already is stacked against a program manager before he or she starts working on a program. While the lack of talent is hurting our space programs, it is the space acquisition process itself that is bringing our space programs to a grinding halt.

This is occurring for multiple reasons.

First, the Department of Defense is launching acquisition programs before fully knowing whether the planned technologies can achieve the system requirements. All too often the necessary investments in technology development and systems engineering have not been made, nor has the technical risk for a program been fully examined.

According to GAO, the primary reason why this happens is because it is easier for a program manager to secure money within the department by including the technology development and system engineering within an acquisition program. This problem is so serious that, according to the GAO, 80 percent of research and development funding is being allocated to acquisition programs, not science and technology budget activities. What is so harmful about including research and development activities within an acquisition program? The answer is that it introduces an unacceptable degree of uncertainty into the acquisition program.

In most cases, the schedule for a space acquisition program is entirely dependent upon how fast the technology can be developed. As the element of uncertainty rises, both cost and schedule are put at greater risk. Too many times, baselines for satellite programs are blown because the maturity of a particular technology has not progressed to the level needed.

Another way the process is hindering our space acquisition programs is the manner in which contractors are winning bids to develop and build these satellites.

Space program contractors are submitting bids at the lowest possible credible price. In the highly competitive space business, where there are few contracts and 10- to 15-year acquisition timetables, contractors are fighting tooth and nail over every contract. As a result, according to DSB , most contractors submit bids that have a 20 percent chance of meeting the original baseline for the program.

So what does this mean to a $5 billion space acquisition program? According to A. Thomas Young, the former chairman of DSB, the contractor bids are so far off that when a government program manager walks in the door on the first day to work on his or her $5 billion program, he or she is already guaranteed a $2.5 billion cost overrun. Further complicating the situation is the fact that the program manager won’t discover the inadequacy of the program’s baseline until the program is halfway complete — when the integration testing starts.

Requirements Creep

A third reason are the numerous demands being placed on our space programs by the warfighter. Some of these requirements are legitimate needs. Others are desires that provide only marginal or niche capability.

There has been a profound absence of discipline when it comes to requirements definition and requirements implementation. The warfighters do not seem to understand the impact that adding new requirements has on cost and schedule: Adding new requirements after a certain point is a sure-fire way to ensure a program’s cost and schedule will grow beyond its original baseline.

It is important to acknowledge that the Air Force is trying to fix these problems. I applaud Gen. Lance Lord, the commander of Air Force Space Command, for taking the lead in crafting the Air Force’s space cadre development strategy. I believe this effort is critical and will pay significant dividends in the future. I also support the excellent work done by former Under Secretary of the Air Force Peter B. Teets in developing the Air Force’s new space acquisition guidelines.

Yet, while these efforts are notable, they don’t go far enough.

The Air Force continues to resort to rebaselining many of its space acquisition programs in order to complete them. Some space programs now are projected to cost more than twice their original baseline. According to the Congressional Budget Office, the Air Force budget for space programs is projected to grow by 40 percent next year and double by 2011. This is not because of new programs, but to pay for those already in the pipeline that have been delayed or experienced significant cost increases.

We in Congress are tired of the frequent cost increases and schedule delays.

No More Excuses

We have heard all the excuses and they are no longer good enough. In many respects, the Air Force and its contractors have lost all credibility with Congress when it comes to space acquisition programs. My colleagues and I are no longer surprised by additional cost increases or notices of further schedule delays. Nor do some in Congress give much credence to the Air Force’s proposals to fix these programs.

The Congress’s lack of confidence in Air Force space acquisition management has resulted in enormous reductions in funding for space programs. For example, the House of Representatives cut $400 million from the Transformational Satellite program and another $125 million for the Space Radar program.

That is a net loss of more than $500 million from the Air Force’s space budget next year. Unfortunately, similar cuts can be expected in the Senate as well.

The key question that we should be asking is: Can the Air Force get its space programs back on the right path?

First, we must slow down our newer space acquisition programs until we get a better trained, more experienced space cadre in place. We need people who understand the complexities of our space programs and who can make decisions that are in the best interests of our national security. We also need to invest the time to conduct realistic, independent cost estimates and perform multiple examinations of the technology being used in the program. We need to slow down, learn from our mistakes, and make sure to get it right the first time.

Second, the Air Force must limit the amount of research and development that is conducted in its space acquisition programs. More money needs to be spent on basic science and technology so that the technical barriers for incorporating advanced technologies in acquisition programs are reduced .

Acquisition programs should not be incubators for unproven technology. We need to better differentiate between the building of a satellite and the development of the technology necessary for that satellite.

Third, the Air Force must prove that it can effectively manage a space acquisition program from start to finish under the program’s original baseline. The Air Force needs a space acquisition program that it can point to as a successful example.

The Air Force also needs to prove that its space program budget requests are justified, and that the service will not be asking for more money to pay for unexpected costs increases, except in the most unusual and infrequent circumstances.

Restoring Credibility

Until its credibility is restored in Congress, you can expect the Air Force to face a struggle in its effort to get its programs off the ground and into orbit.

Fourth, only when we have rebuilt the confidence that has been lost between the Air Force and Congress — and only then — do I believe we should start considering a mechanism for providing a reserve fund. Since unexpected costs and schedule delays do occur, it is only prudent to provide program managers with a reserve fund they can use to deal with an emergency problem. This should not be a slush fund. Nor should it be a special account to add more capability. If the fund is created, there must be close management and even closer oversight.

I strongly believe the continued mismanagement of our space acquisition programs is a far greater threat to our space dominance than any external danger . Our space assets have provided a critical transformational capability for warfighters, and they remain a key component of our national intelligence network. We cannot afford to remain on the current path. Too much is at stake.

The good news though is that the Air Force can fix this. Our problems are not insurmountable. Indeed, with Under Secretary Ron Sega’s leadership, I am confidant this situation can be turned around and that significant progress can be made toward this goal.

These are tough issues facing our nation. We need to overcome these challenges, and together, I know we can.

U.S. Sen. Wayne Allard (R) is Colorado’s senior senator, and is chairman of the Congressional Space Power Caucus.