Guest Blog: Can the Air Force Fill Space Acquisition Assignments?

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The lack of effective, distinct career specialties in the U.S. Air Force, coupled with short duty tours, is leaving the Air Force and National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) space programs short of the domain-knowledgeable and experienced officers they need to succeed in their challenging endeavors.

In the mid-1990s, the Air Force implemented two- to four-year rotational tours for space acquisition officers, with a bias toward three years. Accordingly, tours have gotten shorter. As a concession to the special needs of the space community with its very long programs, occasional extensions up to four or five years are granted.

The Rumsfeld Commission report of January 2001 called for the development of a “space cadre.” Accordingly, the Air Force created a specialty for space, and it tracks and manages assignments in operational assignments at Peterson Air Force Base, Colo., and in acquisition assignments at the Space and Missile Systems Center (SMC), Los Angeles, and at the NRO. But this space specialty initiative seems to lack the priority, recognition, promotional opportunity, etc. — at least in comparison with the specialty fields in other services and in the civilian work force — to develop the full cadre of true Air Force space acquisition professional officers that it needs.

The well-publicized difficulties in space acquisition at both the SMC and NRO beginning in the ’90s were not due solely to issues in program leadership — the causes were many, some well outside the acquisition organizations. The Air Force is addressing the complex underlying causes through its very aggressive, comprehensive Acquisition Improvement Plan (AIP), and the surviving, once-troubled programs of that era are now on clear paths to recovery and success. I applaud the AIP and commend the improving performance in Air Force and NRO space programs. Still, the issues of the professional space acquisition officer cadre are deserving of special attention.

It is axiomatic that to be good at something requires a sustained focus. In “Outliers,” Malcolm Gladwell makes a compelling case that for one to develop world-class capability takes about 10,000 hours of serious concentration. In “Talent is Overrated”, Geoff Colvin argues that 10 years of “deliberate practice” involving a “well defined set of activities” pursued “diligently” with regular “feedback” is required to achieve excellence.

It is also axiomatic that the pursuit of complex enterprises requires the sustained effort of serious, experienced, domain-knowledgeable people at both the leadership and the performer levels. Space programs are classical examples of such complex enterprises.

In the mid-1960s, Los Angeles Air Force Station was home to the so-called white Air Force space programs and to “Program A” of the then-unacknowledged NRO. Arriving as a new college grad at the Aerospace Corp., I was privileged to work alongside the new space-focused Air Force officer cadre as the services, civilian agencies (including NASA) and industry developed, deployed and operated the nation’s military, intelligence and civil space architecture — the legacy of which is still in place. While all of us lacked space domain knowledge and experience at the beginning, eventually those qualifications were developed in government and in industry.

What was absolutely critical to the success achieved during the ensuing years is that those who gained the required knowledge and experience stayed in the space development organizations in roles of increasing responsibility over long periods of time — 20, 30 and more years. The national imperatives of the early space race, and the personal commitment of the individuals, made these long tours possible. During these tours, individuals were “diligently” engaged in “deliberate practice” of increasingly “well defined activities” and received regular “feedback” from leaders, mentors and colleagues, and from the brutal realities of the early space pursuits. A former director of NRO recently recounted long-ago conversations with Air Force officers in which they acknowledged that they were limiting their Air Force career potential but were committed to the space field nonetheless.

It is important to note that some in the new space acquisition cadre brought useful acquisition experience from other domains — aircraft acquisition, for example. It remains true today that such experience can be an important element in building a strong space acquisition capability.

While there are a good many quality Air Force officers at both the SMC and NRO, they are simply not getting the required 10 years/10,000 hours of “deliberate practice” required for leadership roles in critical national security space acquisition programs, or to partner with or go head-to-head with the savvy career professionals in industry or in other elements of the government. Then, they’re not staying around to lead the next group through their 10/10,000 with appropriate mentoring and feedback. And in a corrosive exacerbation of a serious problem, if program leaders do not stay in place over significant periods of space program executions, they are not accountable for results and are vulnerable to taking the short view when confronting the inevitable hard problems.

A word about operational assignments: They are important in and of themselves — after all, that’s why we do the programs — and they give acquisition leaders appropriate sensitivity to the needs of the operational environment. But operational assignments do not qualify officers to lead acquisition programs, any more than driving a car trains one in the disciplines and practices for building a car.

At a recent NRO advisory meeting, we toted up the experience that those present had accumulated in the NRO space programs. The six veterans in attendance (one still serving) averaged nearly 24 years of continuous NRO service, with a range of 15 to 35 years. One was a former Air Force officer who had served in the NRO for 23 years. The reader can find on the NRO website a reference to the “Pioneers of National Reconnaissance” — those who have been recognized for their significant roles in the NRO’s programs over the years. Among the original 46 Pioneers recognized in 2000 there were 15 former Air Force officers (33 percent), many of whom were long-serving contemporaries of mine. Only five Air Force officers (19 percent) have been honored since — the Air Force award fraction has dropped by more than one-third. This is not a good trend, and it could very well accelerate. It is, I believe, symptomatic of the situation of which I write.

It is understandable that the Air Force would want to develop a broadly experienced officer corps for general leadership roles and senior rank. However, I (and many space veterans with whom I have discussed this issue) believe that the short tours in the space acquisition, engineering and development, exacerbated by the lack of true Air Force specialty career designations, are demonstrably inadequate to serve the needs of the nation. Even if all other elements of the AIP are fully implemented, we will not achieve the consistent results in space, for which we once were so well known, until this situation is rectified.

I offer the following recommendations:

  • Implement a space acquisition career designator in the U.S. Air Force that truly recognizes the criticality of training, mentoring and sustained experience to execution of our national security space programs.
  • Implement rotational policies that meet the needs of space acquisition — long enough so that the officer cadre can be held responsible for results in these long, challenging programs, can develop the required “scar tissue” worn by real experts and can provide the leadership and mentoring to those officers following along after them.
  • Fully staff the space acquisition positions with qualified space acquisition officers or increase the numbers of qualified civilians in these positions.

 

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.