A “fragile industrial base” and a relatively small work force are among the long-term problems the space industry must address to fix the cost overruns and schedule delays that have afflicted a number of programs, a senior U.S. Air Force acquisition official said.

“This is a strategic issue for the nation: acquisition for strategic success,” Air Force Lt. Gen. Michael A. Hamel, Space and Missile Systems Center commander, said Oct. 6 at the Strategic Space 2005 conference here. The cost and schedule problems are “symptoms” of the erosion of systems engineering discipline and expertise over the last decade, he said. To assure that the long-term problems are fixed, the work force issue has to be addressed, he said.

Much attention is being focused on the problem, Hamel said, because of the U.S. military’s “growing use and dependence” on space systems and also because once those systems are in orbit, they perform extremely well and give U.S. forces a decisive advantage over any adversary.

Hamel cited success stories in U.S. space system reliability, longevity and performance, including GPS, the Defense Meteorological Support Program weather satellites, and the Delta 2 and Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle rockets.

But Hamel made clear he knows fixing the acquisition problem is a must. He began his comments with a recent quote from Acting Air Force Secretary Pete Geren to illustrate just how serious the challenges are: “We are fighting three wars: terrorism, disaster relief and acquisition reform.”

Echoing Hamel, Richard W. McKinney, director of space acquisition in the office of the undersecretary of the Air Force, said, ” we have the best systems in the world today in space. Having said that, we have some issues. Simply stated, we need to deliver on our promises … It’s an effort that’s going to take the war fighters, the combat commanders, the industry and it’s going to take Congress. The government should not over-ask and industry should not over-promise.”

McKinney said the users of military satellite systems need to be involved in the acquisition process well before the Air Force issues requests for proposals to industry in order to minimize the number of changes that industry is asked to make once a program is under way — a problem known as requirements creep.

“We have proven processes, but we don’t always follow them,” McKinney said during an appearance with Hamel in a panel session dubbed “Acquisition for Strategic Success.”

Several panelists said industry officials, Air Force acquisition personnel and the users of space systems need to work more closely together.

“Dialogue — a frank, open and trusting relationship — is what we’re after,” said Kenneth “Steve” Callicutt , director of capability and resource integration at U.S. Strategic Command. Strategic Command is responsible for broad oversight and long-term planning of space operations.

The government probably needs to have a greater presence in factories, Callicutt said. Also, contractors and the government should be prepared to grant each other complete access to their program databases, he said.

McKinney said the requirements process — amended three years ago — is actually working well, but added: “W e need more flexibility.” To get there, the military has to be ready to listen to industry when it comes in with the argument that some requirements will just cost too much for the budget to bear.

“If you want less cost then you have to have less requirements,” he said.

McKinney agreed with Callicutt’s point about improved dialogue: “We need to have a lot more and have a feedback loop between the acquirers and the users.”

Callicutt added later in the discussion that many systems get used in ways that requirements and acquisition officials did not envision. More experimental prototyping might help reduce the gap between a system’s design and how it actually gets used , he said.

Air Force Brig. Gen. Larry James, director of signals intelligence systems in the acquisition and operations directorate of the National Reconnaissance Office, said the agency learns from soldiers, sailors and airmen every day and uses the information to improve and redesign its classified systems.

James also cited the importance of industry-wide specifications and standards, as well as the management of subcontractors.

“We need to invest a lot of energy into” subcontractor management, he said, because every time a subcontractor has a problem — large or small — it can ripple through a program, slowing work on other aspects of a system. That can mean schedule delays and cost increases.

James also said the space industry and military have to broaden their perspective beyond satellites. “We can’t just look at spacecraft,” he said, but also must consider ground systems, reconnaissance aircraft, and other sensors and networks with which the spacecraft may connect.