Editorial: Consider the Context

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Staffers with the congressional committees that oversee the U.S. Defense Department had reactions ranging from amusement to disbelief in response to the recent assertion by Gen. Lance Lord, commander of U.S. Air Force Space Command, that the military’s space acquisition system is not broken.

After all, evidence to the contrary abounds. In fact, it is probably safe to say that significant cost overruns and delays are the rule rather than the exception on major U.S. military space acquisition programs.

That’s not okay with lawmakers and their staffs — to whom Gen. Lord’s remarks appeared to have been directed. Nor should it be okay with Gen. Lord or anyone else involved in the military space enterprise, be they from the Pentagon, elsewhere in government or from industry. Because a likely consequence of a persistent inability to meet cost and schedule targets laid out for space procurements is that there will be fewer of them in the future.

But to be fair to Gen. Lord, consider the setting for his remarks: a dinner at the National Space Symposium, an annual conference in Space Command’s back yard that brings together primarily individuals who have chosen space as their careers. In that context, such remarks can easily be seen as a well-intended effort to rally troops who lately have been besieged by criticism. He also emphasized that despite its troubles, that procurement system has produced satellite capabilities possessed by no other nation that give U.S. forces a significant edge over enemy forces on and off the battlefield.

In that case, no harm done, although the general’s suggestion — to the chagrin of some in attendance — that critics of the space procurement system “get over it” was a bit provocative. And simply unnecessary.

Nevertheless, when considered in the broader context of the overall military procurement system, the general’s comments weren’t as outlandish as they might have appeared.

As one congressional staffer noted recently, the entire military procurement system has big problems. These problems, the staffer noted, are due to factors that include industry consolidation, requirements overload and pressure to do too much too soon with immature technologies — all of which are familiar issues to anyone involved in military space acquisition.

On top of that, space has some problems all to itself. Prominent among them is the fact that there are few long satellite production runs that give managers an opportunity to fix mistakes made in the design phase and to help absorb the cost of those mistakes.

The Air Force, Gen. Lord’s comments notwithstanding, is taking steps to rectify the situation where space is concerned. In response to the recommendations of a Defense Science Board-Air Force Scientific Advisory Board study led by former Martin Marietta chief and industry wise man A. Thomas Young, the service is instituting new rules designed to bolster systems engineering work during the design phase of space programs. On April 22, for example, the Air Force announced that it would raise the bar for moving space programs from design into development.

These and other reforms will not end the unpleasant surprises — which in retrospect are not so surprising — that continue to surface regularly on programs already under development. They will take time to implement, and must be given a chance to work on space systems that today are still on the drawing board.

There are opportunities. If not on the Space Radar Demonstration or Transformational Satellite programs, both of which Congress seems very reluctant to fund next year, then perhaps on any of several lower-profile efforts designed to change the way the military operates in — and indeed thinks about — space. These include the Department of Defense’s TacSat program and the Falcon program, a joint effort of the Air Force and the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. Both of those programs are designed to remove some of the operational and cost constraints that traditionally limit the utility of space systems.

Concerns about congressional backlash over Gen. Lord’s remarks are overblown. If certain space programs do not get funded for 2006, it will be because the Air Force has failed to convince lawmakers that these systems are both necessary and affordable; not because of a few comments that, while questionable, were made at what amounts to a space pep rally.

It will be up to Gen. Lord and others to set aside the bravado and make that case on Capitol Hill.

For its part, Congress must acknowledge the Air Force’s acquisition reform efforts by giving them a chance to work. And that means not judging the space programs included in the service’s 2006 budget request — including Space Radar and Transformational Satellite — solely on the basis of recent history.