Credit: U.S. Space Force photo by Van Ha

With a $15 billion acquisition budget, Space Systems Command is one of the nation’s dominant military space customers. Housed at Los Angeles Air Force Base like its predecessor the Space and Missile Systems Center, SSC is known for missile-warning satellites and nuclear-survivable communications.

While much of that hardware is acquired through the traditional defense contracting process, SSC leaders adopted a new mantra a couple of years ago, “Exploit what we have, buy what we can and build only what we must.”

SSC’s Commercial Space Office, known as COMSO, was established in 2023 to help implement the strategy. COMSO Senior Materiel Leader Col. Richard Kniseley and Deputy Director Jeremy Leader oversee a 90-person staff that directs more than $1 billion annually toward commercial products and services for military operations.

Col. Richard Kniseley, COMSO senior materiel leader. Credit: U.S. Space Force

Four offices fall under COMSO: the Space Force’s innovation arm; SSC’s Front Door, the point of contact for commercial firms; the Commercial Satellite Communications Office; Commercial Services Integration; and contracting. SpaceWERX, the Space Force’s innovation arm that is part of AFWERX, also works closely with COMSO.

SpaceNews caught up with Kniseley, a former U.S. Air Force space officer and procurement executive, and Leader, a U.S. Air Force reserve officer, engineer and program manager, to discuss the “buy before build” philosophy.

I want to better understand, “Exploit what we have, buy what we can and only build what we must.” What does it mean?

Kniseley: Our history of creating space systems goes back to the Western Development Division in the 1950s. For a great amount of time, we were the predominant force in space. Now, a pacing challenge or a threat has made us evolve how we do space acquisitions and how we get after the threat.

Exploiting what we have is taking a capability that’s already on orbit and utilizing it in a different way. One great example is our Space-Based Infrared System satellites that we use for missile warning and missile track. We have utilized the data coming off those satellites to help out with forest fires. We have provided heat maps to the U.S. Forest Department so they could plan evacuations and put out key portions of wildfires.

We have also set up Tools, Applications and Process Labs. We stood up one for the data coming off the Overhead Persistent Infrared Program missile warning and missile tracking satellites and set up one for Space Domain Awareness. We have allowed industry, academia and other members of government to have access to that data. They can build applications. Then we, the government, facilitate getting some of those applications out to the warfighter to better accomplish their mission.

What does it mean to buy what you can?

Kniseley: One reason that we stood up COMSO was to better integrate commercial capabilities with our space enterprise. We do that through partnerships with industry. And with our partners at the NRO and the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, we figure out capabilities that are out there and available contracts. We put money towards getting capabilities out there faster while allowing room for innovation.

The great thing about the “buy” piece is we’re not necessarily focused on accomplishing 100 percent of our requirements. If a capability out there fulfills 70 percent of our requirements that we can get today, we consider that a win. Then, we set up the contract to innovate in the background while onboarding new providers.

It’s all about the speed of delivery and staying ahead of the threat of a pacing challenge. And it’s not just the commercial industry back home, but what’s available through our international partners as well.

After we have looked at the “exploit” and the “buy” pieces, we focus on what we need to build in-house. Those are capabilities that have a thin line for risk. Those are also capabilities that may or may not be available on the commercial market. There’s not much of a commercial market for something like missile warning and missile tracking. We will build that in-house. But even during the “build” pieces, we are still evaluating if there is a “buy” that will soon to be available.

What is a thin line for risk?

Kniseley: I would call a lot of our mission areas no-fail missions. For position, navigation and timing, we have a very capable GPS constellation. Because we, the military, utilize GPS in many different aspects of our overall mission, I can’t foresee a future where we will not have our own PNT constellation. At that same time, commercial can provide alternate PNT. If our signal is degraded, we could transition to an available commercial capability as long as we have properly integrated that capability, tested it, operated it, and know that it is sufficient for the mission.

How are you incorporating “buy before build” in acquisition planning?

Kniseley: We’ve done this in a couple of different ways. When we stood up SSC, we established the Space Systems Integration Office. Their job is to integrate SSC’s program executive offices [PEOs] into an overall enterprise architecture. They understand when things are being delivered and what is being delivered. Also, through threat analysis, they understand what the pacing challenge is doing. They identify capability gaps and look at what can be done internationally and commercially.

Through COMSO, especially through the SSC Front Door, we evaluate commercial capabilities coming online. We’ve been able to feed that information to the PEOs, so they know what industry is doing and when capabilities are going to come online. We’re able to start to seed industry to get after some of those problems or to focus on some of our more stressing requirements.

Are system specifications for Requests for Proposals written with “buy before build” in mind?

Kniseley: A lot of that analysis is done upfront. COMSO is working with the PEOs to identify requirements that industry can get after. And we’re trying to align the funding to do that. When the PEOs are starting to do some of their own separate RFPs, they’re looking at commercial.

Leader: There has been legislation to help guide this. Section 1607 of the 2022 National Defense Authorization Act talks about the Senior Acquisition Executive certifying, before there’s a new start program, that a commercial capability cannot meet, in partial or in full, the requirements.

A lot of the time, market research is done just in time as part of the RFP process. For that market research, you need a better finger on the pulse of what commercial is doing. Hence, we do those recurring Industry Days and/or align with existing industry events to make sure that we’re tracking what industry is planning on doing, what they’re actually delivering, when it’s available to the commercial market and when it could be available to the government market. That can help inform requirements and not just the RFP.

Are there products or services that you cannot buy commercially?

Kniseley: The government capabilities and commercial capabilities are getting blurred by the day. Industry is moving very fast. I don’t want to say that there are areas that cannot be accomplished commercially. I think there are areas where there’s probably not much of a market other than DoD. One focus of COMSO is being one of many customers for commercial capabilities. If we were to drop off, we still want the company to be profitable.

What are some of the challenges you face with this buy-before-build approach?

Kniseley: The planning, programming, budgeting and execution [PPBE] cycle is not conducive to the commercial industry. It’s very system-focused instead of being overall capability-focused. When we put something through the program objective memorandum [POM] process, we’re focused on a system, not an overall capability. It’s very hard for our PEOs to maneuver that budget to get after an overall capability.

Case in point, you’re buying a GPS satellite, but there’s an alternate PNT capability out there. It’s very hard to pivot those dollars.

I believe even Dr. LaPlante [undersecretary of defense for acquisition and sustainment] mentioned the need to have a funding capability to get after innovation, dollars that are not exactly tied to anything specific, with the end goal of onboarding innovation and new capability so that we’re not waiting for the next POM cycle.

That also maneuvers into culture. As an acquisition person, you’re trained and brought up to defend that budget and what it’s going towards to the best of your abilities. Showing the acquisition side that all of these commercial capabilities exist, we’re paving new ground. “Exploit” and “buy” is not something that they brought that they’ve been brought up with.

Also on the operations side, our 13s operators [space operations officers] are used to controlling their capabilities and operating them. They feel comfortable with it. Having commercial capabilities is difficult at times.

Then, lastly, security. It is very hard for some of these startups and new companies to get the appropriate security clearances necessary to understand some of the government requirements. It’s sometimes a chicken and egg effect. You need to have a contract to gain security clearances, but you can’t get a contract without security clearances.

COMSO is looking at how to better on-ramp some of these new companies that have exquisite capabilities so they understand our requirements and we can continue a dialogue with them. SSC has been leading the way with the number of Industry Days we have been having. In 2022, we had over 20. Then, in 2023, we had about 15 to 17. A lot of them have been Reverse Industry Days. We present a list of questions or a vignette on some problem we’re having in a mission area, allowing innovation in industry to present answers.

Jeremy Leader, COMSO deputy director. Credit: U.S. Space Force

Leader: An interesting article came out in January in a different publication. Chuck Beames talked about the PPBE cycle being structured to win the space race, but not to win against the current threats that we face.

There was a 1961 memo from Wernher von Braun to Vice President Lyndon Johnson. Von Braun talked about the flexibility he needed at NASA to beat the Soviets. One of them was budgetary flexibility. Maybe we needed flexibility way back then, too.

In terms of culture, the DoD published a great Defense Industrial Base Strategy. There was a great section that talked about flexible acquisitions. But a subsection of the report said we need to more closely follow DoD 5000.02 [Operation of the Adaptive Acquisition Framework] to avoid technology scope creep because that’s what causes all of the cost overruns.

It’s one contributing factor. There are many others. One is the unwillingness to change requirements, or to scope them in the first place around what exists, versus requirements scoped so specifically they force us into that “build” bucket every time.

Another culture point, [Space Force acquisition executive Frank Calvelli] put out nine space acquisition tenets in 2021. He highlighted a lot of the things that need to change. The only one of those tenets that I slightly disagreed with was he said, “We need to hold industry accountable to deliver.” I would have added, “We need to hold ourselves accountable to deliver as well.” Everything else I thought was great. Now how do we start incentivizing those activities to see that change?

Then, lastly, there’s been a lot of talk about getting companies cleared so we can do more threat-sharing. Obviously, there’s been a lot of threat stuff in the news recently with Russia. But there’s another side of that coin, which is making sure we classify only the things we need. We say, “Build only what we must.” I think we should also say, “Classify only what we must,” because that drives a lot of these secondary and tertiary problems that hurt some of our own companies.

Classification can also prevent us from sharing with allies. The security piece is a double-edged sword. We need to make sure that we use it effectively for the things we need to protect. At the same time, we need to make sure we don’t over-classify things unnecessarily and cause unnecessary harm.

What steps are you taking to address these issues and buy more things commercially?

Kniseley: No. 1 is integration with the right members of the Space Force and developing partnerships. We have amazing partnerships with the NRO and the NGA.

We are collaborating with them constantly to understand available commercial contracts so that we can get after capability quickly. Success for us is not owning all of the contracts. It is the speed of delivery of those capabilities.

We talked about the integration with the PEOs as well as Space Systems Integration Office and the Space Warfighting Analysis Center. As they develop their force designs, we understand the need to stay ahead of the pacing challenge. We can help feed them with the available commercial capabilities, so we stop moving towards that “build” and budget accordingly.

SpaceWERX is our partnership with AFWERX. We’ve been able to seed industry through their budget. We have aligned SpaceWERX Challenges with some of our Industry Days. We have had about $40 million available to onboard companies through direct-to-Phase 2 contracts.

We’re working with entities such as the Defense Innovation Unit and the PEOs to start working out the funding aspects to take companies to the next level through [strategic funding increase] STRATFI.

As we stand up COMSO even further, we’re looking to stand up a commercial space program element. We’ll be able to show folks what we are spending on commercial and also highlight mission areas that are commercial could fulfill.

We’ve been stood up for less than a year, and we’ve accomplished a lot of different tasks, including helping stand up the Commercial Augmentation Space Reserve, which will be a huge boost in integrating commercial capabilities. We can put companies on contract during peacetime, and surge and scale that capability across the spectrum of conflict.

What percentage of your budget goes to commercial purchases now?

Kniseley: It’s very hard to say because some mission areas are more conducive to commercial than others. For example, the Commercial SATCOM Office headquartered at Fort Meade, Maryland, executes over $850 million annually, fulfilling all of the services’ commercial SATCOM needs. We purchase over 80% of our communication needs commercially. We buy all of our launch services commercially as well.

Leader: We typically default to the [Federal Acquisition Regulation] definition of commercial. That also includes commercial items, not just commercial services. We have program offices that will buy commercial buses for their government satellites. There are some elements of commercial that are buried within some of the “Build only what you must” category as well.

Anything else you wanted to say?

Kniseley: We are making strides. Some people think it’s slower than others, but we are undertaking a huge challenge, breaking this culture of building everything in house. We are truly appreciative of how innovative and capable the commercial industry is. It’s also been very refreshing to see how commercial communications technology and imagery has been utilized by our allies and warfighters.

Commercial industry is out there in the fight every day. Everyone is starting to realize it.

Gen. [Chance] Saltzman, [Space Force chief of space operations], Honorable Calvelli and [Air Force] Secretary [Frank] Kendall have expressed the need to integrate commercial more going forward.

Leader: The new commercial capabilities coming out, including communications and imagery, add this new layer of transparency. We are also trying to be as transparent as possible with commercial, so expectations are real and can be managed. There are some things we don’t control, if we are talking about budgets. But it is a partnership. We want to be there for them as much as they are for us.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

This article first appeared in the March 2024 issue of SpaceNews magazine.

Correction: This article originally stated that SpaceWERX reported to COMSO. SpaceWERX, a division of AFWERX, works with COMSO but does not fall under COMSO.

Debra Werner is a correspondent for SpaceNews based in San Francisco. Debra earned a bachelor’s degree in communications from the University of California, Berkeley, and a master’s degree in Journalism from Northwestern University. She...