While we in the U.S. space industry may have different roles, we do share the same ultimate goals — protecting our national security and working to deliver exquisite capabilities for the country.
We not only share the same goals, we share the same resource constraints and the same need to develop creative ideas to continue modernizing at affordable cost. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta summed it up with his mandate: Control costs, look at alternative architectures, evaluate commercial and international partnership opportunities — and do it quickly. We need to do all this without jeopardizing user satisfaction while we look for ways to evolve current systems to address the challenges ahead.
We’ve seen an extraordinary series of launch and on-orbit successes recently. Several new systems have delivered eye-watering capabilities and are operating as expected, including the Space Based Infrared System, Space Based Space Surveillance, GPS 2F and the Advanced Extremely High Frequency satellite program.
Looking forward in light of current budgetary, policy and architecture challenges, we must leverage the lessons learned and identify opportunities to deliver mission success more efficiently while making our systems more agile and resilient.
Gen. William Shelton, commander of Air Force Space Command, has commented that the cost of mission assurance is almost minuscule in comparison with the overall cost of a program and the potential for loss. The general is correct: Being efficient without mission success has no value. We need both.
Effective mission assurance is our best investment to ensure both mission success and risk management. Identifying risks early and making appropriate decisions to balance cost, schedule, performance and risk objectives helps to avoid late-breaking, costly surprises.
As we move forward, mission assurance will mean aligning requirements, schedule, cost, risk and contract type at the beginning of the program. In the near term we’re unlikely to have the funding to start new programs for capability enhancements. We’ll see greater use of evolutionary block changes in existing programs, with managed opportunities for preplanned product improvement or technology refresh. It’s likely that single-mission-area dedicated development and test programs will be replaced by smaller, focused efforts leveraging our experience and appropriate commercial practices, and that there will be more reliance on commercial services, commercial systems, hosted payloads and small packages.
Our space systems are on the critical path to global security. To address the known and unknown threats we face, we have to think about evolving our architectures to be more resilient, robust and reconfigurable. The cyber threat is persistent and pervasive, which means in the congested, contested and competitive realm of space we are also very connected. This enables data access and data fusion, but it also may enable data mischief and puts the integrity of our data at risk. We need greater focus and undoubtedly unique approaches directed at research and development. To deal with this threat, we also must engage the industrial base to ensure we maintain our ability to innovate for the future. Needed technology improvements should be developed in parallel to the formal production process and inserted only when the technology and manufacturing readiness have been demonstrated. This requires tremendous discipline across the acquisition community since history has shown that cost and schedule risk are correlated with nonrecurring engineering.
Embedded in these challenges are numerous opportunities as well. The anticipated use of the evolutionary block change approach to development offers the promise of reduced cost and cost stability. At every step, it requires that we ensure that our architectures are designed to accept evolutionary change, systems are designed for mission assurance at the outset, a plan is developed for subsequent integration of new capabilities, and technical investments are made in enabling technologies that can reduce cost. To be successful we must not only work closely with the prime contractors, but also encourage them to work effectively with their suppliers to avoid obsolescence and ensure that the lessons of the past are applied.
In fact, smaller, faster steps may be beneficial in a threat environment that changes rapidly. Greater reliance on smaller, focused development and test programs may isolate riskier aspects of the development process from the production environment.
To support this shift from development to production systems, The Aerospace Corporation, together with industry, has developed tailored mission assurance criteria for various classes of missions to help match the disciplined application of processes to the specified and accepted risk posture. In anticipation of making our space systems more resilient, we’ve also addressed the need for software architecture readiness assessments and turnover readiness assessments in recognition of the fact that future systems are more software-dependent than current systems, and that software will likely be more complex. Resiliency also brings significant challenges to mission assurance and program execution. Resilient systems will be harder to test because we’ll have to demonstrate that the system operates in a challenged environment — that is, it operates through any anomaly, whatever it is — in addition to the typical demonstrations that the system meets its performance requirements. This effort will require even more collaboration between the operational and development communities than we have today.
These benefits, however, can be achieved if and only if there is clear agreement among all the stakeholders about how risk will be assessed and how much risk is acceptable, so that the criteria for mission success are understood. The faster pace of these smaller development programs will require clear requirements and end-to-end systems engineering to provide best value.
As our efforts are increasingly constrained by decreasing budgets, the criticality of the up-front systems engineering and architecting efforts grows, and we’re going to have to be smarter about how we work.
At Aerospace, we believe that adopting the more effective approach of addressing risk at each stage of development is a great investment that would reduce the need to work through problems at the end of a program, when “marching army” costs are at their peak. Some will observe that this approach adds more cost up-front, but in fact it avoids significant cost later in the program. It does not require an application of resources at the beginning of the program that has not been consistently performed; for example, a well-defined concept of operations or effective parts screening and test planning. Resources could be realigned and applied to the tough systems engineering and architecting issues without compromising mission success. We will also identify risks earlier and reduce the opportunities for cost and schedule growth that was experienced on the programs started during the Total System Performance Responsibility era in the ’90s. The program “should cost” will equal its “will cost.”
Our shared focus — Aerospace’s, the government’s, the contractors’ — will become “effectiveness” in terms of preventing escapes, instead of “fixing” them, with the added value of efficiency. We put behind us late-breaking discoveries and diving catches — and get programs started right, selectively inserting technology improvements at the right time, applying mission assurance rigor early in program development to anticipate and eliminate those late-program problems plus the costs that go with late discovery.
Baking-in mission assurance at the front end of systems development will save costs and time, but the real payoff will be the ability to free up resources to work the architecture issues we need to address and exploit existing capabilities better.
Both warfighters and taxpayers need us to succeed on this journey. Innovation, expertise, perseverance and teamwork are the keys to success today and for the future.
Wanda Austin is president and chief executive officer of The Aerospace Corporation.