WASHINGTON — The head of the Space Development Agency — a U.S. Space Force organization that uses unconventional procurement methods to acquire satellites and build a space network — is pushing back at critics who presumably don’t want the military acquisition culture to change, SDA’s director Derek Tournear said in a recent social media post

“Recently, I was told to stop playing the role of ‘bad cop’ on behalf of the Space Development Agency and our mission. It was suggested that I might damage relationships among my peers,” Tournear wrote. 

Established just four years ago, SDA is moving ahead with an ambitious plan to build a low-Earth orbit constellation of communications and missile-detection satellites by relying on a broad base of suppliers for commercially produced spacecraft and laser communications terminals. 

In its early days SDA faced opposition from Air Force leaders and skepticism on Capitol Hill. But it has since gained widespread support and has been recognized as a “constructive disruptor for space acquisition.”

SDA’s boss Frank Calvelli, assistant secretary of the Air Force for space acquisition and integration, has championed the agency’s methods of buying satellites as a model for the Space Force to follow in other programs.

“We really want to go fast, we have got to stop the traditional way of building satellites, and the sort of large seven-year cost-plus contracts and go to smaller systems that are more proliferated,” Calvelli said last year at an industry symposium.  

Blowback from the acquisition bureaucracy

Tournear’s post suggests the recent blowback is coming from inside the DoD bureaucracy.

He said SDA’s unconventional approach has helped achieve some progress — with two successful satellite launches achieved in 2023 — but is being met with resistance from defenders of the established system.

“While I’m proud of SDA’s progress, the path to two successful launches was paved with the challenges — and yes, sometimes scars — of building an acquisition ecosystem within, and opposed to, the status quo,” Tournear wrote. 

There are entrenched interests within the defense procurement establishment that feel threatened by SDA’s model, he noted. But to deliver technologies that DoD needs to modernize its space architecture, “we have no choice but to change,” Tournear added. “Change is hard; change is necessary. And nothing fights change like the paralyzing behavior of going along to get along.”

Traditional DoD space programs have focused on developing technologies no matter how long it took, Tournear added. “SDA flips that paradigm to deliver what is ready on schedule — when the warfighter needs it.” For that reason, “constructive disruption required someone to play the ‘bad cop.’”

Tournear in his post staunchly defended SDA’s approach, emphasizing that military forces need access to cutting-edge technologies in a timely manner and that the traditional methods often have fallen short.

“I cannot stand by and watch wasteful, thoughtless procedures that will only benefit our enemies by delaying delivery to the warfighter,” he wrote. “Calling that out won’t always make friends, but it will make our nation stronger.”

Sandra Erwin writes about military space programs, policy, technology and the industry that supports this sector. She has covered the military, the Pentagon, Congress and the defense industry for nearly two decades as editor of NDIA’s National Defense...