Guest Blog: Air Force Staffing of Space Acquisition Assignments – Revisited

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Last November, I wrote in Space News of my concerns about the Air Force’s ability to staff space acquisition assignments at Space and Missile Systems Center (SMC) and at the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO). In that piece, I asserted that the lack of concrete career specialties in the Air Force, coupled with policies that drive frequent job rotations, was depriving the nation of the experienced space acquisition corps that it sorely needs. While I take responsibility for the assertions and supporting elaborations presented in that paper, many colleagues, past and present, from across our space community provided impetus, input and support for my arguments.

Since the publication of the subject paper, I have continued to receive endorsement of the perspective presented therein. Below, specifically without attribution, are presented some of the comments received from seasoned, current and former seniors in government and industry — many of whom have served in both.

  • “Right on!”
  • “I see your blog made it to Space News … EXCELLENT piece, thanks for taking the time to address a serious issue in our community. As an AF retiree who still interfaces with active duty AF folk, it is deeply troubling that highly talented AF officers are not groomed to excel in their career fields. The AF is doing a disservice to its professionals.”
  • “Very much enjoyed your 29 Nov OpEd, ‘Can the AF Fill Space Acquisition Assignments.’ I had a terrible, head-shaking sense of déjà vu, having worked this problem continually at SMC and NRO while in the AF. AF finally corrected the mistake of mixing ICBMs and Space (after 15 years), but has now distracted itself by combining space with cyber. Space has just never been a top priority for the AF, and space professionals and programs have suffered accordingly. ”
  • “I re-read your ‘blog’ from last November — and it is indeed right on target. But actually, I hope that many others have read your article and come to see what you see, that Air Force mission success of the future rests on focused personnel policies of today.”
  • “There is a big difference between a lesson observed and a lesson learned. The scar tissue of experience in the space business must leverage technical proficiency, judgment and experience. Over my career, I have seen excellent officers with one or two of these traits struggle to be effective in the management execution of complex space development programs. That the three skills are not readily available in a balanced capability is exacerbated by the seemingly divine guidance that favors Air Force officers to be developed as generalists instead of specialists. When complex matters are managed by well intended but not space-acquisition-healed leaders, it leads to unfortunate circumstances and decisions. Complex data driven decisions that are overly summarized (for the uninitiated) allocate the decision to the drafters of the decision paperwork instead of management. A process to appropriately align career training with space developmental experience will over time build a cadre of experienced USAF officers that can perform objectively at the top of their professional game. Alternatives of delayed decisions and poorly conceived test regimes does little to further hone the expertise of America’s important space based capabilities and reputation. USAF leadership has all the knobs at their disposal; the key is a decision to change the culture and procedures to drive for a cadre of space acquisition professionals that can serve the country while in the Air Force.”

This last comment, perhaps a little long for this venue, is repeated in its entirety because it is particularly perceptive and its author was a very senior former government and industry executive.

It is reported that Air Force Chief of Staff, Gen. Norton Swartz, has taken on this issue. I commend him for doing so but implore him to go beyond palliatives that leave the fundamental problems and underlying cultural causes unaddressed. If the Air Force cannot fix this problem, the nation should consider a dedicated civilian work force for leadership of Air Force and NRO space programs.

 

 

Alden Munson is a senior fellow at the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies and an adviser to government and industry in space and intelligence. He is a former U.S. deputy director of national intelligence for acquisition and technology and an industry executive, and was recognized as an NRO Pioneer.