Is the Space Development Agency a threat to SMC?

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SN Military.Space Sandra Erwin

It’s a question that many people have been asking during the largely secretive planning of the Defense Department’s Space Development Agency: Will the SDA displace the Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center?

The short answer is no. From what we know so far about SDA’s intended mission — to bring cutting-edge commercial space technology into military space systems — this does not pose a direct threat to SMC, says one of its former commanders, retired Air Force Gen. Ellen Pawlikowski. 

The SDA in fact could be a valuable addition to the Defense Department if it’s going to leverage privately funded space technology, Pawlikowski tells SpaceNews. 

Retired Air Force Gen. Ellen Pawlikowski

DON’T BLAME SMC “It’s the old issue of how we do things faster, cheaper and more streamlined,” she says. The problem is not SMC but the Pentagon’s procurement regulations. “It’s been proven over and over again that if you have an organization that you burden with all these acquisition rules and regulations, whether it’s SMC or others, it’s very difficult to be able to move quickly.”

SDA TO PLAY BY DIFFERENT RULES  The Air Force manages very large space programs that require checks and balances, quality control and engineering discipline that SMC and the Aerospace Corp. have “done pretty well for the Air Force and for others,” she says. “But if you want an organization that has the flexibility and the agility to take bigger risks on the newer concepts, then you’re probably going to get there faster if you create a separate organization that doesn’t have to fight its way through the regulations and  the culture.”

SOME OVERLAP LIKELY Pawlikowski says that under the leadership of Fred Kennedy, the SDA could create an environment “that would allow them to explore different concepts for doing acquisitions that leverage the private investment that’s going on in space.” There could be some overlap with what SMC does but that will have to be sorted out as the SDA’s missions get more clearly defined.

SMC has huge responsibilities executing big-ticket programs that are critical to national security such as the next-generation missile warning and GPS satellites, in addition to launch services. That will not change. The SDA will try to explore new concepts and do it quickly, Pawlikowski says. If the new agency is successful, maybe decades from now we will be talking about the end of SMC. “But we’re a long ways away from that being a reality.”

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