In the Hot Seat at SMC

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  Space News Business

In the Hot Seat at SMC

By WARREN FERSTER & JEREMY SINGER
Space News Deputy Editor and Staff Writer
posted: 17 April 2006
02:29 pm ET


Profile: Lt. Gen. Michael A. Hamel

Commander, U.S. Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center

U .S. Air Force Lt. Gen. Michael Hamel landed in the hot seat last May when he assumed command of the service’s Space and Missile Systems Center (SMC) in Los Angeles .

Overseeing the development and acquisition of Air Force space systems is challenging enough without the extra scrutiny and criticism that come with having a portfolio riddled with programs that are over budget and behind schedule.

One of Hamel’s tasks is to implement an acquisition approach designed to prevent these kinds of problems in the future. In a nutshell, the approach entails fielding new capabilities incrementally on successive satellites rather than all at once.

While this approach is often characterized as new, Hamel says it is similar to the way space programs have been run throughout much of his 34-year career , which includes three previous tours at Los Angeles Air Force Base.

Hamel also is working to improve the quality of the space acquisition work force, a challenge that he says dates back to his first assignment after graduating from the Air Force Academy with a degree in aeronautical engineering.

Hamel spoke recently with Space News deputy editor Warren Ferster and staff writer Jeremy Singer.

Is SMC still having problems with a shortage of properly trained and experienced engineers within the mid-level officer ranks?

We do continue to have challenges in terms of the depth, in terms of numbers, as well as in experience in our mid-grade officers — typically senior captains, majors and lieutenant colonels that have strong technical background and also a lot of depth of experience managing space development programs.

This is not unique to SMC — we have a shortage across the Air Force and frankly probably across the Department of Defense in terms of mid-grade-level folks, and so part of what we’ve got to do is make sure we’re getting good recruitment at our junior grades as lieutenants and bringing them in and getting them properly educated, trained and mentored.

We’re really making concerted efforts with our space acquisition school at SMC as well as some broader education and training efforts as part of Air Force Space Command’s space professional development.

The other thing that we’re doing for those officers that we do have is [trying] to really hone some of their skills through more mentoring and coaching through things like bringing on board independent review teams to help us review some of the technical and programmatic depth of challenges we have with some of the programs.

Is the problem that you simply don’t have enough mid-level officer billets at SMC?

We have sufficient billets from the standpoint of we’ve identified jobs and require certain levels of experience and skills at those mid-grade levels, but the fact is we probably only have sufficient supply across the Air Force to man about 60 percent of the authorized positions.

And that’s not unique to SMC. Quite frankly other product centers within the Air Force — places like Aeronautical Systems Center and the Electronic Systems Center — also are challenged with having an adequate supply as well as experience level in those mid grades.

Given the fact that the Air Force is working to reduce its personnel ranks by some 40,000 by the end of the decade, will this problem get worse before it gets better?

Well, certainly there are big pressures out there. In the aftermath of the Cold War, we reduced our overall systems-development and acquisition work force by about 30 percent over the decade of the 1990s . I think now we’re starting to see the impact in terms of some of the problem programs we have, and the lack of systems-engineering and other program-management rigor and disciplines in those programs.

The Air Force leadership clearly recognizes that we have got to rebuild some of the skills and experience in our acquisition work force. Although the Air Force is probably going to be faced with a significant personnel reduction, both the chief of staff and the secretary have committed that we have got to do some rebuilding in terms of numbers of people that we actually have in the acquisition and development business.

So there are going to be pressures out there, but I think it’s recognized that this is an area of the service we simply must invest in more for the future.

Have you gotten any relief in recent years from the congressionally imposed limitations on support from federally funded research and development centers like the Aerospace Corp. ?

We have had some modest success. We definitely are going to continue to advocate for getting more access to Aerospace because they bring a very, very high-caliber work force and really provide the kind of depth of technical and engineering expertise that’s essential for us to manage these programs.

What’s your take on the Air Force’s incremental approach to buying satellites?

I think that this block, or incremental, approach is really much more in keeping with how we have done things historically.

That is in many ways how we had done things over the past decades, but I think what’s happened over time is we’ve depended more and more on space, and added so many requirements to the systems that it becomes more difficult to reach, especially when we try to do it in one bite.

It’s not dissimilar to what we’ve done in the aircraft business with different blocks of aircraft like the F-16 and F-15 family.

Do you have any concern that this approach may set the bar too low and not field transformational capabilities?

I think that there’s some reason to be concerned, but I think that if we’ve got steady investment in science and technology and then promote those capabilities into demonstrations and then ultimately operational programs, that we could create a different set of incentives that will actually assure that we always have cutting-edge technology.

Clearly there’s some risk that we set the bar too low, but by the same token I think we’ve got good examples across the space business where we’ve really shown significant increases block to block. All you have to do is take a look at how GPS evolved from its very first capability to what we have today with GPS 2RM and GPS 2F and ultimately where we’ll be heading with GPS 3.

Is it a big problem for the Air Force if the Federal Trade Commission does not approve the joint venture in launch operations between Lockheed Martin Corp. and Boeing Co.?

As a matter of national policy we have got to have assured access to space. We think the idea of having a single joint venture that is able to effectively and cost-efficiently manage the two fleets of launch vehicles — Atlas 5 and Delta 4 — will achieve both the assured-access-to-space objective as well as be the most cost-effective way of managing this critical national capability. So we’re still very much in support of proceeding with this kind of arrangement.

Is there any concern on your part that the cost savings associated with this merger will not fully materialize?

I think in everything we do we need to be fairly open-eyed about what kind of estimates and projections we have.

As we know, the future’s very hard to predict. By the same token though, we do know that we’ve got to have insight and access to the actual business and engineering efforts of the two companies and we think there’s more to be gained by them actually being able to work in the construct of the joint venture.

In terms of what cost savings we might expect to see, quite frankly we need to ensure that we balance cost effectiveness and efficiency against mission success and make sure that we never take our eye off that ball. So we’re going to be very much on top of this, making sure that we’re achieving the maximum cost effectiveness at the same time that we’re also going to achieve the expected mission assurance and mission success.