Attitudes on Capitol Hill toward military satellite programs have not warmed much since April, when U.S. Air Force Gen. Lance Lord told critics who believe the U.S. military space acquisition system is broken to “get over it.”
Lord, the commander of Air Force Space Command, made his comments during a dinner speech at the Space Symposium in Colorado Springs, Colo. Among those in the audience were congressional staffers who oversee spending on space efforts.
Since then the House and Senate Armed Services committees, as well as the House Appropriations Committee, have made significant reductions to the Air Force’s 2006 budget request for its two biggest space programs. The Senate Appropriations Committee had not begun marking up its version of the 2006 defense spending bill at press time.
On July 12, Lord found himself spending his birthday testifying before the House Armed Services strategic forces subcommittee about problems with space acquisition work. Committee members did not confront the general directly regarding his April comments, but indicated their displeasure with the current state of affairs .
Rep. Terry Everett (R-Ala.), chairman of the strategic forces subcommittee, noted that the Pentagon plans to spend more than $20 billion on space programs in 2006, a figure that he said is expected to grow by 40 percent by 2010.
“The acquisition challenges of national security space are critical from both a fiscal and operational context; we cannot continue to tolerate countless cost overruns and schedule delays,” Everett said. “We must get a handle on it and put the right structure and processes in place now.”
Rep. Silvestre Reyes ( Texas), the ranking Democrat on the subcommittee, also voiced his disappointment with the Pentagon’s space management .
“There is mounting evidence that the Department of Defense has lost its way on space acquisition,” Reyes said.
Lord acknowledged that the Air Force had veered off course in the past, leading to a seemingly endless string of problems on programs like the Space Based Infrared System missile warning satellites.
But he insisted the Air Force has learned from its mistakes and charted a course for success with the adoption of a new space acquisition policy. The policy dictates that the Air Force keep a tighter leash on satellite program requirements once development work begins and put a stronger emphasis on systems engineering during the early design phases.
Lord pointed to the service’s recovery from a spate of launch failures in the late 1990s as an example of its problem-solving abilities. Those launch failures cost the service more than $11 billion and diminished the capabilities available to deployed troops, he noted .
“There was a time when some people said that failure was just the cost of doing business,” Lord said. “Unfortunately, we had a number of people throughout the business saying that about many different programs and that type of attitude did nothing but foster failure.”
Following those launch failures the Air Force put additional focus on its systems engineering work with rockets, a move that has paid off with more than 40 consecutive successful launches, Lord said. The service is taking the same approach on its satellite programs with an eye toward heading off problems early in the development process rather than later when they would be far more costly to deal with, he said.
Thomas Young, the former Martin Marietta president and CEO of an expert panel whose 2003 report formed the basis of the Air Force’s new space acquisition policy , said he is generally pleased with the direction the service has taken. But he noted that the Pentagon has yet to implement one of the report’s key recommendations: establishing reserve funds to quickly deal with problems that crop up during a satellite development effort.
Young believes a reserve fund of roughly 20 percent of a program’s total estimated cost would give managers the latitude to fix problems without having to ask Congress for more money, a lengthy process during which the problem can snowball into something much worse. While Air Force space officials have been vocally supportive of program reserves, they have been unable to secure them during the Pentagon’s internal budget planning process.
One measure the Air Force has taken to strengthen its space program oversight is to keep managers in place for longer periods of time, Lord said. While Air Force program managers typically have served two-year stints , they will now stay with a program for four years, he said.
Rep. John Spratt (D-S.C.), ranking member of the House Budget Committee and a member of the strategic forces panel, said he would like to see program managers stick around even longer. An officer may be “just beginning to learn” after four years, Spratt said.
While noting that civilian officials are easier to keep in a particular job for an extended period , Spratt said studies have indicated that uniformed officers are best suited to program management. He called on the service to find a way to keep its uniformed program managers in place for much longer terms.