Financial Pressures Could Push Air Force Back to TSPR
The beginning of the space mission for the U.S. Department of Defense was in July 1954, when the Western Development Division established a temporary headquarters in a former parochial school in Inglewood, Calif. Gen. Bernard Schriever arrived in September, leading an Air Force organization that came to be called the “Old Schoolhouse Gang” and forming solid principles for space systems acquisition.
In these early days, the hallmark of the Schriever way of doing business was for the government to assert its imperatives, prerogatives and responsibilities for total systems development, integration and ultimate performance. Government program managers were charged to achieve success. They had the ultimate decision authority and accountability for the system and system components, and the ability to assure that all of the system components worked together to provide a cohesive capability.
The government would not undertake this responsibility alone, however. In addition to the development contracts themselves, the Air Force contracted directly with industry to support the Air Force in its responsibilities by securing technical excellence through what came to be described as systems engineering and integration support. Ramo-Woolridge Corp., which then merged with Thompson Products to become TRW, was engaged to provide this support for Schriever and his new organization. Schriever clearly felt that TRW’s engineering and integration functions were critical enabling capabilities. He worked with Simon “Si” Ramo (the “R” in TRW) to architect what these capabilities should be. TRW provided systems engineering and integration across the various program segments that were being provided by different contractors. The TRW technical experts identified and coordinated the filling-in of the “white spaces” between the program space, ground and user equipment segments. This move assured success of new missile and space systems.
Gen. Schriever realized that TRW’s systems engineering and integration efforts, by themselves and without context, were not the complete answer to achieving successful programs. Scientific and engineering people with technically deep, specialized skill sets were needed to establish a world-class understanding of each space system “segment.” In 1960, the Aerospace Corp., a federally funded research and development center, or FFRDC, was formed with many employees from TRW’s Space Technology Laboratories division to provide this expertise. Aerospace then hired the right people and sponsored research to obtain and synthesize the deep technical knowledge and engineering skills required to predict and analyze problems within each segment. This helped ensure that each segment was built correctly and provided expertise that was not readily available in the U.S. government technical, laboratory and acquisition community.
Lastly, leadership in the Schriever era recognized the need for support and stability in the program office to support the processes for acquisition. This has come to be known as systems engineering and technical assistance and provides the government uniquely needed planning, programming and budget execution expertise, all vital to secure funding and essential for acquisition success.
The Old Schoolhouse Gang and nascent U.S. national security space community were driven by these key precepts. The result was a construct that consisted of core elements:
- First, the government was the buyer and the accountable organization for the development of these systems.
- Second, contractor TRW provided systems engineering and integration across the various segments that were being provided by different contractors.
- Third, Aerospace provided deep technical knowledge that was not available within the government.
- Fourth, systems engineering and technical assistance contractors aided the government in performing its acquisition processes and reporting functions.
Gen. Schriever’s four-part programmatic acquisition structure remained in place for well over 30 years.
Then the Iron Curtain fell. Cost pressures (the “peace dividend”) became paramount.
The government began moving away from a tried-and-true independent systems engineering and integration model and started assigning systems integration responsibility to segment prime contractors, and usually the spacecraft developer. The government’s role of an independent integrator was further eroded as budget pressures pushed traditional independent integrators such as TRW to be acquired and merged into larger prime contractors. Eventually, the U.S. approach to space acquisition and integration morphed into one that awarded systems contracts to one big team with a prime contractor on that team executing total integration responsibility. The Air Force retained overall oversight of this function, but only for a short while.
With the very best of intentions reformers stepped forward and argued that this government oversight function was unnecessary. This not only happened with the Air Force and its Space and Missile Systems Center (SMC), but with NASA. They shouted out that since contractors already were doing the real integration function, additional U.S. government oversight of this function was not a cost-effective use of scarce government resources. Therefore, with cost drivers being all important, the reform movement won the day. Prime contractors would be left alone to do this integration — with little to no government oversight. This acquisition approach was called total system performance responsibility (TSPR). Schriever’s four-part approach to space systems acquisition was abandoned.
In addition to moving integration and performance responsibilities to the contractors, the TSPR approach was supposed to use commercial practices to streamline the acquisition process, and this in turn would enable the government to reduce costs by identifying and eliminating redundant or unnecessary prac
tices. Under the TSPR approach, small government management teams were the rule, and they struggled in their attempts to manage massive space systems acquisitions. Some complained about this change, but they were cashiered. The small teams were encouraged to use short statements of work that were open to wide interpretation with no one in place to help provide that interpretation, and this sharply limited government technical oversight of contractor activities.
Optimists thought that TSPR would save money and free industry to be creative. It was a just a dream. Government not only lost control of programs but also walked away from the longstanding technical skills and expertise and people vitally needed to provide effective program oversight. Not surprisingly, this led to huge programmatic failures, with eye-popping budget overruns, schedule delays and mission assurance failures.
Now, after some painful years, large cost and schedule overruns, and staggering Nunn-McCurdy breaches, the U.S. national security space community has begun to recover from TSPR’s problems. The community has re-emphasized the Old Schoolhouse Gang principles that Schriever espoused. The successor to the Western Development Division, SMC, has worked hard to rebuild the Schriever formula for success, delivering strong program management teams with world-class systems engineering and integration, deep technical skills and in-depth mission assurance capabilities. SMC has worked hard to re-instill the values of strong systems engineering with active requirements control, integration management and risk management. This has eliminated many “white space” seam issues, and strong mission assurance functions have been re-emphasized. That mix allows SMC to deliver the right space system. By realistically and smartly undertaking the challenges and inherent complexity of the space, ground and user segments’ developments, SMC has implemented an approach proved in the challenging early days of space.
So, where are we today?
- Times are tough. The U.S. is facing a national financial crisis, and it appears that national security space budget cuts and constraints will have to be part of the solution.
- The last time budgets got tough, the U.S. government downsized the military, fired civilians and tried turning over systems engineering responsibilities to prime contractors with failed TSPR approaches.
- Budget reductions have been imposed within the Department of Defense, and more are likely to come.
- We need to be careful to handle these cuts in a way that does not recreate the problems of TSPR.
As was true in Gen. Schriever’s time, SMC’s priority is to field and sustain space capabilities for military users worldwide. This demands that our national security space community maintain a robust and diverse constellation of satellites from multiple vendors and supporting multiple missions. This also requires SMC to field an intricate and complex ground infrastructure to command and control the satellites, and produce a huge number of fielded receivers to enable warfighters around the globe to carry out their missions each and every day.
In addition, space systems are ever evolving, and it has always been necessary to work on the next generation of systems while fielding the current generation. And these generations must work seamlessly together. Program managers must look to secure backward and forward compatibility across multiple generations of space systems.
Another challenge involves managing a technical baseline, risk, interfaces and system performance. Here again Gen. Schriever’s approach brings value by focusing on control of the technical baseline and early identification and mitigation of risk. It proactively avoids costly problems. The government-contractor team can use a number of tools to mitigate risk — maintaining the technical baseline, implementing a formal risk mitigation approach and maintaining forward and backward technical compatibility to identify and address issues early, when they are easy and inexpensive to fix.
As Gen. Schriever proved, a highly capable team is needed to produce and manage the technical baseline in support of specific missions. Unfortunately, we are seeing that space budget cuts are resulting in cuts to systems engineering, integration and FFRDC contracts and in reductions of needed trained and educated government personnel. The reductions will ultimately force the Air Force to rely on prime contractors for engineering, mission assurance and integration expertise. By continuing down this path, we may unintentionally travel back to what could be a TSPR-like dependence on a single prime contractor, and suffer programmatic failures comparable to those suffered during the TSPR era. Allowing such prime contractor dependence threatens programmatic failure and surrenders the excellence that our space community has recently achieved. We would slide backwards and risk technical failures, schedule delays and cost overruns.
Rather than surrender, we should re-emphasize the proven Old Schoolhouse Gang approaches of the past, and we can honor Gen. Schriever’s legacy by insisting on a strong government-led and responsible team supported by systems engineering, integration and FFRDC program management teams. Preserving Gen. Schriever’s approach will be critical to SMC’s future success and effective program execution. Proven success does not become obsolete, and we continue the proud traditions of the Old Schoolhouse Gang by insisting on management approaches that work.
Thomas D. Taverney has been involved in space operations and space systems development for over 42 years, as an active duty and reserve officer and within the commercial space industry. He is a former vice commander of U.S. Air Force Space Command. He wrote this essay in his personal capacity.