First order of business for Air Force space innovation office: Decide what it wants to build

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What is the Space Rapid Capabilities Office supposed to build? That is the central question, said Randy Walden, director of the Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office.

WASHINGTON — A new office Congress created to speed up the procurement of next-generation military space systems has a $316 million budget, a headquarters at Kirtland Air Force Base, New Mexico, and soon will have a civilian leader that will report to Air Force Space Command chief Gen. John Raymond.

The Space Rapid Capabilities Office, known as Space RCO, is still missing a key element that it will need to be successful: A clearly defined goal and procurement objective.

“What are they supposed to build?” That is the central question, said Randy Walden, director and program executive officer of the Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office.

The Space RCO is being fashioned after Walden’s Air Force RCO — located at Joint Base Anacostia-Bolling in Washington, D.C. — that has been widely praised for rescuing the B-21 stealth bomber program from a bureaucratic death spiral. It is also the office that successfully put the Air Force X-37 experimental robotic space plane on orbit, racking up more than 2,000 flight hours over two years. The X-37 operates out of Cape Canaveral from a former NASA space shuttle facility.

The fifth X-37 mission went into orbit last September and was its first aboard a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. Walden recalled seeing the first stage booster return and touch down at Cape Canaveral. “It’s very impressive technology.”

Walden, who has been at the helm of the Air Force RCO since 2014, is helping Raymond and the Air Force’s top space buyer Lt. Gen. John Thompson get the Space RCO off the ground. “What I told them is that they need a baseline, a foundation,” Walden said on Monday during a question-and-answer session at a Mitchell Institute event at the Air Force Association.

“To me, that’s the most important piece,” said Walden. “Once you get a feel for the space system you want to go build, then you can start populating with the right folks and get the right contracting officers and program managers.”

The Space RCO was created by Congress in last year’s defense policy bill as a replacement to the now defunct Operationally Responsive Space office. The Space RCO has a similar charter as the Air Force counterpart, although it’s “not quite as tailored or streamlined as what we have, but it’s as close as one could get,” Walden said. It will take some time to get all the pieces in place, he added. “There’s no simple solution to creating an organization. It will take about six months or so to get going, gain their footing. And the most important piece, define what is their task at hand.”

Walden’s office has 250 people and a $30 billion portfolio. Space officials asked if they could “steal” some people for the Space RCO but Walden told them that would not fly. He did provide Raymond and Thompson a list of RCO “alumni” with expertise in contracting and financial management that Space Command could reach out to.

A much longer term and tougher goal is to “instill the same culture” that has permeated the Air Force RCO, Walden said. “It’s not the label on the door that actually makes you rapid. It’s the culture.”

Most Defense Department procurement managers don’t go to work every day intending to slow programs down, Walden said. “It’s the processes, the reviews that add time because of risk aversion.” For that reason every service now has some variation of a rapid capabilities office. “In general, it’s good,” he said. “It’s a message that it’s time to take a little bit more risk and try to get ahead of the adversary.”

The original plan for the Air Force RCO emerged in 2001 out of frustration with the procurement process. It is overseen by a “board of directors” that includes Undersecretary of Defense for Acquisition Ellen Lord, Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson, Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein and Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Acquisition Will Roper.

“They are very much in tune with the culture I mentioned,” Walden said. “And they are very helpful.”