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U.S. Air Force leaders claim that they have saved billions of dollars and taken years out of program schedules — including major satellite procurements — thanks to authorities Congress gave the Defense Department to speed things up. Known as “804 authorities,” they were passed by Congress in Section 804 of the 2016 National Defense Authorization Act to allow “rapid prototyping and rapid fielding” of new systems using mature technologies that only require minimal development. The idea was to encourage DoD to grab existing technology and build prototypes that can be produced and fielded within two to five years. This was a  “crystal clear message” from Congress that it wants DoD acquisitions to move faster, the Air Force’s top procurement official Will Roper told the Air Force Association. 

CAREFUL WHAT YOU WISH FOR As is often the case with procurement reforms Congress imposes on DoD, the devil is in the implementation. And lawmakers now worry that DoD may be overusing Section 804 in programs where skipping tests and reviews could be problematic. House Armed Services Committee Ranking Member Mac Thornberry (R-Texas) is proposing legislation that demands that  DoD be more accountable. One of the provisions in Thornberry’s “Continuing Acquisition Reform Act of 2019” requires DoD to report on the progress of rapid prototyping and fielding policies and limits funding on these programs until it is submitted. Thornberry will propose the bill in the 2020 NDAA.

Congress wants DoD to get equipment to the field quickly, said a HASC staffer who briefed reporters last week. But the department might not be using the 804 authorities the way Congress intended, the staffer said. For example, systems are now being developed with no long-term plans for testing and sustainment. “That’s concerning,” the HASC staffer said.

Undersecretary of Defense for Acquisition and Sustainment Ellen Lord told reporters May 10 that her office is working on a formal policy for implementing Section 804 to replace an interim guidance that was put out in April 2018. A Pentagon spokesman said DoD would not comment on Thornberry’s proposed legislation.

MISSILE WARNING SATELLITES One of the poster child programs for the use of 804 authorities is a constellation of billion-dollar satellites for missile defense, the Next Generation Overhead Persistent Infrared (OPIR) program. The House Appropriations Committee in its report accompanying the 2020 budget questioned whether the use of Section 804 authorities is appropriate for this program. DoD is seeking nearly $1.4 billion for next-gen OPIR, an increase of $752 million above the 2019 enacted level, and projects to spend more than $11 billion over the next five years. The HAC cut DoD’s 2020 request by $201 million.

TOO MUCH MONEY TOO SOON? Next-gen OPIR will supplement and replace the Space Based Infrared System satellites  Lockheed Martin has been building for decades. The company is developing the first of three OPIR Block 0 GEO satellites that the Air Force wants to start launching in 2025. To meet that schedule, the Air Force said it still needs $632 million to be reprogrammed into its 2019 budget. The HAC in the 2020 budget report raises red flags about “significant reprogramming requests to keep the program on schedule.” Bottom line: The Air Force rushed the program using 804 authorities but didn’t have enough funds to support that schedule, stirring concerns that maybe this program is too complex and too expensive to be handled as a rapid prototyping project.

Sandra Erwin writes about military space programs, policy, technology and the industry that supports this sector. She has covered the military, the Pentagon, Congress and the defense industry for nearly two decades as editor of NDIA’s National Defense...