Editorial: Crossroads for Space

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On Sept. 21, as military space professionals from throughout the United States headed to Washington for the National Defense Industrial Association’s National Security Space Policy & Architecture Symposium, a senior Pentagon official gave a speech that could have profound implications for their industry.

The setting was a luncheon sponsored, coincidentally, by the same trade group, and the speaker was Kenneth Krieg, the new U.S. undersecretary of defense for acquisition, logistics and technology. In a nutshell, Mr. Krieg told the industry to brace itself for defense cuts made necessary by relentlessly growing demands on the Pentagon’s increasingly strained resources.

The message was not addressed to a particular sector, but anyone who makes satellites, rockets, and related hardware and software should take special notice because military space programs may be in for a disproportionate share of the cuts that Mr. Krieg suggested are in the offing.

Why space? Part of the reason is a growing perception throughout the national security community that the Pentagon has lost its way in space and things have gotten out of control.

This perception is not without justification: Virtually every major program in the Defense Department’s nonclassified space portfolio is behind schedule and over budget, many of them severely so. The classified side of the business is harder to gauge, but indications are that the well-known problems with the Future Imagery Architecture spy satellite program are just the tip of the iceberg.

On Capitol Hill, long-simmering frustration has boiled over. Reliable supporters of military space have become outspoken critics: “We have heard all the excuses and they are no longer good enough,” Sen. Wayne Allard (R-Colo.) said in a speech at the space policy symposium.

Every month or so brings new revelations about a program in trouble — the National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System being the latest example — while repeat offenders like the Space Based Infrared System (SBIRS) seem perpetually trapped in a bad-to-worse vortex.

If there is any good news, it is that the leaders of the space community, both in industry and government, have stopped trying to whitewash the problem. Gone is the defensive bravado that in April led Gen. Lance Lord, the usually cerebral and reflective commander of U.S. Air Force Space Command, to advise critics of the space acquisition system that the system was fixed and to “get over it.” The more recent version of that speech, delivered in early September by Gen. Lord’s vice commander, Lt. Gen. Daniel P. Leaf, is that it is time to just get down to the serious business of fixing the problem.

And fixing it will require a comprehensive effort on several fronts by industry and the military.

It is well established that the Air Force needs to do more up-front systems engineering work on space development programs and beef up its cadre of skilled space professionals. The latter task is absolutely critical: In addition to performing the systems engineering work that has been lacking in recent years, the space cadre is needed to help weed out the lowball bids that are pervasive in government contracting.

Industry executives, meanwhile, have a strong interest in curbing the win-at-all-costs mentality on the part of their bid teams. The more problems space programs have with the byproducts of lowball bids — cost growth and delays — the less likely Congress will be to fund any new large programs .

Congress and senior Pentagon leaders also have important roles to play, starting with resisting the temptation to single out space simply because of bad publicity. If cost and schedule performance are among the survival criteria during lean years ahead, there needs to be an evaluation of whether space programs truly have performed worse in those areas than complex aircraft and ship procurements. That study should take into account the fact that satellite programs typically do not have the luxury of amortizing research and development costs over large production runs.

Any slowdown in space development activity should be an organized retreat rather than a demoralizing rout. The riskiest acquisition programs should be scaled back to research and development, to be resurrected when the technology is more mature and the budgetary climate more favorable. The last thing anybody needs is a repeat of the SBIRS fiasco.

And while it might make sense in certain limited circumstances to make sole-source awards to incumbent contractors, competition is the best way to insure innovation, and there should especially be competition in the development of new spacecraft technologies that are first proven on experimental spacecraft for eventual use on operational systems.

Congress should insist that the military and intelligence communities beef up their research and development efforts and provide them the funding to do that. Proving new technologies on smaller and less expensive experimental missions in the long run will save taxpayers billions of dollars in cost overruns and painful delays in the deployment of systems critical to U.S. national security.