Former SDA boss Fred Kennedy answers the questions we’ve waited months to ask

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MOUNTAIN VIEW, California — It came as a shock when Fred Kennedy resigned as director of the Space Development Agency less than five months into his tenure. Kennedy, a retired U.S. Air Force colonel who led the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s Tactical Technology Office, helped draft the memo establishing SDA before Mike Griffin, undersecretary of defense for research and engineering, tapped him to lead the organization.

SDA also seemed like a natural extension of Kennedy’s work at DARPA to spur the Pentagon and defense industry to dramatically speed up adoption of advanced technology and space architectures. At DARPA, Kennedy led Blackjack, a DARPA campaign to figure out how the Pentagon could profit from the commercial wave developing small-satellite megaconstellations.

In fact, leading SDA was his dream job, Kennedy said at the Satellite Innovation 2019 conference in Mountain View, California, earlier this month where he was interviewed onstage by Chris Stott, CEO of ManSat, a firm focused on international spectrum regulation. Kennedy told Stott if he were king for a day he would phase out many export regulations. Secondly, Kennedy would like to see sunset clauses to dismantle all new government organizations after 20 years. That way, organizations would know they did not have “an infinite lease on life,” Kennedy said. It also would force people to devise new organizations to tackle future challenges. “The problem is if you ask a legacy organization to do the new, they typically push back and say, ‘We’ve got it covered.’”

After the onstage interview, Kennedy spoke with SpaceNews about leaving SDA, his public clash with Air Force leaders at the 2019 Space Symposium and his future plans.

Why did you leave SDA?

When Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan signed the establishment memo for the Space Development Agency, it was very explicit in terms of the authorities it was granting. It was a wonderful memo. I helped write it. We went to the wall to make sure that agency would be sufficiently autonomous, have sufficient authorities and sufficient resources. We were taking as sort of our template [Air Force Brig. Gen. Bernard] Schriever going out to El Segundo in 1954 and basically being given carte blanche to go solve a problem.

I said, “If you provide that level of autonomy and resource base then anything is possible. But if you don’t, you’re kidding yourself. If you pull back on the autonomy and you short the agency on resources, then it’s all just a joke.”

I’ll poke at Operationally Responsive Space. What does it do? Now it’s the Space Rapid Capabilities Office, apparently. But for years it struggled with not enough money and no clear sense of vision. Back in the 2003-2004 time frame, I used to think that ORS was going to go off and build a rapid launch service. That never occurred. That would have been transformative in order to do the kinds of things ORS wanted to do.

Early on, ORS showed a picture of the U2 and all the various payloads. I ran the U2 program for a while. I totally got that picture. U2 is not quite plug and play, but it’s as close as a 1960s-era airplane can get. If you need to change out hardware to do a new mission on U2, you can do it very quickly in a day. I saw similar potential in the ORS story. But it never had the resources and it never nailed down that theme. It kind of floundered.

ORS threatened the status quo.

It did and it was congressionally mandated. There was little constituency for it. Even though they were fighting a good fight, they had to continually back away from their principles to stay alive. In the end, they had nothing. In some sense, what I’m trying to tell you here is I was not going to back away from the authorities. I needed those authorities that were invested in me as a director to get the job done. I needed to be able to hire my own people. I needed to be able to develop and devise my own acquisition strategy. I need to be able to release a [Request for Information] or a solicitation without too much additional help.

Did you and Mike Griffin have different views on running SDA?

Yes. Mike is a brilliant man. He’s one of the smartest people I know. His logic is impeccable. We ended up having disagreements over how to run the organization and what the outcome should look like. There were some fundamental disagreements that I had with where I was being asked to go. We just had to call it a day. It’s too bad. Because like I said, it was my dream job. I would have liked to see it through the end. I don’t like stopping at the very beginning.

Is the SDA that Congress is now being asked to fund different from what was outlined in the Shanahan memo?

It’s hard to tell but I don’t think so. Based on the number I heard and the things that [SDA Director Derek Tournear] has said, I don’t think it’s morphed much. To be honest, Derek’s going to need the money. Without it, he’s not going to move the culture or the community at all. He’ll end up being a national security space architect. That’s not interesting. That job was fraught with peril. No money but you’re trying to tell everybody what to do. How long does that last? Not long. The idea here is you’ve got to give Derek and his folks real money. Is it $10.6 billion over five years? It’s somewhere between $1 billion and $3 billion a year. To put that in context, DARPA is $3 billion a year. It is essentially a DARPA-sized activity, maybe even with less people.

During your onstage interview, you mentioned commercial leveraging. Did you say that some people thought SDA should take commercial ideas and turn them over to the Pentagon’s “trusted industrial partners?”

Here is a thought experiment:Company A has really good ideas about how to mass produce satellites and user equipment. They’ve got some trade secrets. How is that going to be translated over to a trusted industrial partner? That sounds difficult. I can’t imagine Company A is going to be too excited about that. I see that becoming a very interesting struggle. Not to say it can’t be done. It can. There are ways to do that. But I can’t see anybody being happy about it. Whereas if you could go straight to Company A and say, “You look like you know what you’re doing. We should probably work with you directly.”

In this example, is SDA working with Company A directly to build its own constellation, or to place 100 SDA satellites within their 3,000-satellite constellation?

Yes. I don’t care. Some people are going to say, “We don’t want you to buy our satellites and take them somewhere else and fiddle with them.” OK. I understand that. Those people might be more comfortable if I purchase services from them or if I give them 50 payloads. I like the idea of being able to go in and purchase the product on the showroom floor and then take it elsewhere and modify it. It’s kind of the Model T concept. I buy one but if I want it to be a tractor, I can turn into a tractor when I get home.

Some people don’t want you to turn their Model T into a tractor. They want to turn it into tractor on site and under their supervision. They don’t want you tinkering with it. They certainly don’t want a third party coming in to tinker with it. I’m OK with that.

I’m also OK with pure service purchases. They are all good options. It’s a matter of what company is willing to offer what. But if we came out of it with drastically shortened schedules, drastically lower cost, then it was a win. I’m not sure I really cared about how I got to that win. I did throw the skepticism flag on translating all of that over to the defense industrial base in a timely or inexpensive fashion. I just don’t see how that works. Someone might; I don’t.

One of the knocks we heard against SDA was that it would make acquisitions based on threats not formal requirements. Some critics saw that as too much leeway for such a small office.

There is a pile of requirements laying around that need to be addressed. They’re holy writ and you’re supposed to address them. But the bottom line is the threat is migrating and evolving while you’re trying to address your legacy requirement. So what do you do about that? The answer is, you have to have somebody that stands up and says, “I’m working the threat. I’m working ahead of the requirement because no one has that requirement yet. But I know that somebody bad is developing high-speed weapons that we’re not going to be able to track appropriately.” One answer may be, “We’ll just wait until the [Joint Requirements Oversight Council] validates that requirement in 2028.”

No. Let’s get ahead of it and start putting capability up against the threat. Now some people will say, “Wait a minute. That sounds like you’re getting a little out of control because you’ll just define your threat to be whatever you want it to be.”

That’s a little disingenuous. You’re not going to randomly define the threat. We have intelligence that suggest what people are up to. That is actually the threat. We haven’t defined the requirement to go work that threat, but the threat is out there. What do you want to do about it? The answer is, “We’ve got some bright people who can do agile hardware in combination with some commercial folks, and we think we could actually nail that in a year.”

Why wouldn’t we try? We kept saying, “This is a hedge bet. Make the hedge bet. We’re not asking you to spend $14 billion a year on it. We’re just asking for a little bit of money, maybe a billion or two a year. If it doesn’t work, just kill it.”

You said if you were king for a day, you would impose a sunset clause on agencies and organizations to dismantle them after 20 years.

I think that’s important. You’ll never get it [passed] for the reasons you understand. But there would be nothing more valuable than being able to renew our organizations. The only one I’ve ever worked for that I felt renews itself properly is DARPA and even DARPA has accreted bureaucracy.

When ORS had its brush with death a while back, the Air Force argued ORS was no longer needed because the service had adopted its“operationally responsive” credo. Similar arguments were made against SDA by people who pointed to SMC 2.0. Can SDA and the Space and Missile Systems Center coexist?

The answer is yes, of course. I mean the coexistence thing isn’t a problem, but there will have to be some maneuvering to determine who does what. There will always be some overlap. The stuff [the National Reconnaissance Office] does somewhat overlaps what SMC does, what the Army and Navy do. But so what? A little overlap is OK. Nobody’s going to have perfect seam-fitting. The worst thing is to have massive holes, which I feel is where we’re going. We’re not quite there yet. We’re getting close. The holes are opening up and we’re all acting like it’s no big deal because we’ve been on top for so long. We’ve got to stop that. We’re not on top and we’re not that fast. We are complacent. We are requirements-based.

We handed the British their hat back in the Suez [Crisis]. I do not want to be here when we get handed our hat by the Chinese. We’ve got to stop this. We’re an innovative nation. We can make this work. I know we can.

You laid out an aggressive schedule when you were running SDA. Looking ahead to 2020, do you have any thoughts about how far they will get?

We had hoped to get solicitations on the street by about now. We intended to have an industry day back in June. They managed to do it in July. That was good. I don’t know when that solicitation is going to happen. Of course, you can’t solicit without some cash behind it and they’re sitting on a continuing resolution. My guess is they’re going to be waiting until they get a budget.

Industry still seems pretty interested in everything SDA does.

They should be.

What business opportunities is industry waiting for? You were talking about buying satellites off constellation assembly lines. Is that still SDA’s big opportunity, or has it evolved?

It depends on who you are. For megaconstellation providers, part of it might be public-private partnerships, nursing some of the technology along that they need but don’t want to spend as much as they would have to clear the hurdle. Government is in a great place to do things like that. That’s what DARPA is for — to say, “Heck, we’d love to have that optical terminal or we’d love that GPS capability but better user terminals that fit where they need to fit so we have the mobility and everything else.”

Right now that stuff doesn’t exist or if it does, it’s very nascent. It would be great to be able to push selective dollars like SDA money or DARPA or other ones into those key things. Otherwise people don’t want to go do the work because they can’t close their business case with the current technology. We ask, “What if the technology improved to X?” They say, “Then we would definitely do it.” Well, then let’s go work on that. They might say, “We’ll work on it if you work on it.” OK, we can figure that out. Things like that are most interesting from the New Space standpoint.

Legacy providers have to think about what they want to do. If you’re a Northrop or a Boeing or Lockheed, what is your contribution here? Are you going to build payloads? Would you build payloads in onesies and twosies and then have somebody else build the rest? Or are you going to figure out how to do your own mass production? Raytheon knows how to mass produce seekers for missiles; why can’t the industrial base get on that track?

The Air Force touted the Next Generation Overhead Persistent Infrared program as aggressive for compressing a nine-year development schedule down to five. Once SDA started talking about deploying a space sensor layer well before the first Next Gen OPIR satellite is launched, do you think you stirred opposition among incumbent providers?

I don’t doubt people were threatened. We were addressing a unique problem set that is not addressed currently, namely, hypersonic tracking. We didn’t want to wait until 2025 or 2026 to figure out how to do it. The thought was we’d get out there by 2022. If that’s true, then we might actually be able to catch up.

But waiting until 2026 or worse, waiting for whatever follows next-generation OPIR, didn’t make any sense. To me, that didn’t mean, though, that a Northrop or a Lockheed or whoever couldn’t come back in and say, we’re willing to support it. We’ll try to figure out how to help you in 2022. We weren’t saying, “Shut down Next Gen OPIR.” That’s an argument for 2026. For now, we need to put something up in an agile way that may not be perfect but let’s get it up, see how it operates and then refine it quickly. That was the thought. How do we do this better every year? That’s not how we do space. The Space Based Infrared System is living off focal planes from the late 1980s, early 1990s. Come on. That’s awful. We shouldn’t be doing that.

Did you know ahead of the Space Symposium that the infighting over SDA was going to spill out as publicly as it did?

No, we were surprised. We’d been talking with the Acting Secretary Shanahan in advance of that. We explained how we would tell everybody how SDA would be done. Shanahan got up and said his peace. Then, the feedback was a bit of a shock. But at the same time, I understood it. I still understand it.

Did you recalibrate your message after Heather Wilson, the Air Force secretary at the time, criticized SDA in her speech?

No. We had the same message. I understand Secretary Wilson’s argument. I think we probably just differed on how you get to real disruptive innovation. I think it’s very hard to make legacy organizations do that. Look, if you can make a legacy organization do that then show me the recipe because we all need to go figure that out. But it’s very hard. Culture is so hard to overcome. There’s nobody to blame for culture.

‘Air Force versus SDA’ became one of the big storylines coming out of Space Symposium.

I wish that hadn’t happened. That wasn’t helpful. It was entertaining for people watching from the outside, but that wasn’t particularly helpful. And the truth is that [Gen. John “JT” Thompson] of SMC and I are colleagues. We’ve been working together to try to figure out how to do business. So having that overlay was not particularly useful.

Once the line is drawn in public like that, both sides tend to double down, don’t they?

To JT’s credit, he actually stood up later that week and said, “We know Fred. We like Fred. We can work with Fred.” Great. That’s fantastic because I feel the same way. Have you guys read Loonshots? Great book. It’s worth your while. It talks about franchises and innovators and how you can’t ignore either one. You’re always going to have the franchise, the operational part, what’s in place. And you can’t tell those people to go away while you innovate. These things are always running in parallel. It’s important to understand that.

But the problem is we got to a point where we had no innovators anymore. We had nobody assigned to that task. That’s a bad scenario, too. We need to have a disruptive influence. Was SDA the right way to do it? I don’t know. But I would ask people, “How would you do it?” Generally in the commercial world, you do it by running away from your old company and setting up a new company and then challenging the old company to their market or setting up a new market. In some sense, that’s what we are doing here.

You are challenging the status quo and saying, “You guys can’t get there from here. But we think that we could come up with a new way of doing business that may rival the old, may supplant it at some point. We don’t know yet, which is why we don’t expect you to hand us all the cash lock, stock and barrel.”

Some people said we hadn’t proven the case. Of course we hadn’t proven the case. The only way I could prove the case, was if I actually went to orbit and demonstrated my metrics. Then we’d come back and have the discussion. Why don’t you let us do that on small scale? We don’t want to pull everything else down. That never would have made any sense. There had to be some sort of logical transition. But the first step was always going to be demonstrations, experiments in the next couple of years to prove that it would work. Don’t shut those down. Don’t rail against them. Support them. Then we’ll see if it works. If it doesn’t work, fold tent, go home. Absolutely. But if it does work, then we have to have a real conversation about what the next five or 10 years looks like. We would need to talk about what we do in terms of funding distribution.

That threatens entrenched organizations.

Absolutely. And that’s real. I get it. But the alternative is, “I hate to threaten the entrenched organizations. Let’s not do that. That’s so unfriendly. We’ll, just keep doing this because it makes you all feel better and you’ll keep getting your money.” No, we’re not going to do that.

I think SDA was a solid initiative and it still is. It just has to be funded properly and the agency has to be provided the appropriate authorities and autonomy to get its job done. Otherwise it won’t be fast, it will be slow. And it won’t be inexpensive, it will be costly. Then people will point to it and say it’s just like every other organization. That’s the last thing you’d want.

You raised some eyebrows when you talked up the importance of the military keeping an eye on what’s happening in cislunar space. What’s the threat you see there?

In a generic sense, I can’t speak to specifics, the concern was folks will start using the space beyond GEO for all sorts of things. As that starts to happen, it presents a threat. It’s a threat we don’t watch very well. Some people argue because it’s not there.

Your cislunar statements fueled the argument that the threat-based approach you espoused amounted to giving SDA free rein to chase hunches.

That’s not true. We were very grounded in terms of the threats. That was very important.

Have you decided what you’ll do now that you’ve retired from government service?

Not yet.

Are you doing any consulting right now?

Yes. But I don’t want to just consult.

What do you want to do?

I want to build things. It has got to be meaningful and it has got to be, if not revolutionary, a little crazy. I’d rather be David than Goliath any day of the week. And building stuff is just fun. What I’d really like to do is tie all the great piece parts together. There are opportunities to do some amazing things if you can just knit all that into one fabric and provide those products and services, whether it’s for DoD or commercial use. We’re just on the edge. Folks like [Amazon CEO Jeff] Bezos and others get it. They’re going to be successful. I would like to think that we will be successful across the board, not just in the commercial arena; that some sectors like civil and defense don’t get left behind.

When you left SDA did you return to DARPA?

On the books, but I never returned to an office. I just went on leave. I retired from DARPA Aug. 9. I was retired out of the military in 2016.

To be honest, it was interesting. It was good to take the time off, get perspective, hang out with the kids. I’ve been able to talk to all sorts of people since then. It’s been really enlightening to see all the great work that’s going on. I actually feel better now because I’ve been made privy to so many cool things going on. I just hope it continues. I am worried that some of the [venture capitalists] and others are getting a little weary.

I’m worried that at some point they are going to turn off the [funding] spigot. We need a few more years of this to get over the hump. Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos will get over the hump without that. But some won’t. It would be bad to have any more high-profile failures. I definitely believe that if we have a couple more years of runway, we’ll start to see some pretty amazing stuff. At that point, it will be more self-sustaining. I don’t think we’re quite there yet.

This article originally appeared in the Oct. 21, 2019 issue of SpaceNews magazine as “King for a day.”