The National Security Space Acquisition Leadership Questions

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For the past several years, a number of U.S. national security space programs have encountered technological challenges and incurred dynamic cost growth and mounting schedule delays. In the process, key system capabilities have been lost, either traded to save cost and schedule or shed because they were technically unattainable.

Several independent reviews conducted over the past several years identified a number of contributing factors: unrealistic cost and technical risk assessments up front; requirements growth; lack of responsible risk management; inadequate funding with no margin for contingencies; budget instability; a degradation of government’s systems engineering capability; insufficient experience of program managers; lack of accountability; and a flawed government acquisition approach.

The recent action, initiated by the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence and passed overwhelmingly by the full House, to reduce or eliminate funding for a number of these troubled programs is long overdue. The annual level of investment to sustain these programs has been huge and has adversely impacted the development of next-generation and beyond space technologies.

The acquisition management issues and technical challenges driving the failure to meet performance, cost and schedule milestones for these programs were well known and yet tolerated for several years, in part because of the perceived lack of alternatives. Although the programs were reviewed closely at each review juncture, decision makers were always left with the picture that there were no alternatives less risky or less costly or able to provide the level of capability required to meet national security needs.

The solution was always the same — add additional funding, restructure and hope for a miracle. In fact, several of the troubled programs have been restructured (some more than once) and still are unable to meet redefined cost, schedule and capabilities. While the House action may not be adopted by the Senate, it should serve as a warning to industry and government managers at all levels that these programs are seriously at risk and that all options are on the table, including termination and the development of other alternatives , if warranted.

The growing frustration over the seemingly failed space acquisition process has contributed to the debate concerning the distribution of management responsibilities for national security space programs. The previous assignment of the undersecretary of the Air Force to serve as the Department of Defense executive (DoD) agent for space and also as the director of the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) was an attempt to merge black and white space under a single authority.

While shared efficiencies were achieved under that arrangement, the reality is that DoD and the intelligence community struggled (most notably at the staff level) over a number of issues, including requirements, system capabilities and Con Ops [concept of operations]. Additionally, the span of control — control being the operative word — and demands on the undersecretary’s time were inconsistent with the level of supervision required to achieve mission success across the national security space enterprise. Hence the recent decision to split the positions of undersecretary of the Air Force and director of the National Reconnaissance Office.

As noted previously, numerous independent panels and commissions have identified a number of causes for the current state of our national security space acquisition programs, most of which are listed above. Blatantly missing from that list, however, is the issue of leadership. Both the National Commission for the Review of the National Reconnaissance Office (the NRO Commission) and the Commission to Assess United States National Security Space Management and Organization (the Space Commission) addressed the leadership issue in their final reports in November 2000 and January 2001, respectively.

Their recommendations included merging disparate space activities, adjusting chains of command and modifying policies to achieve greater responsibility and accountability. However, while the distribution and alignment of management responsibilities are important and have provided opportunities for efficiencies, they have not provided the authority and clout necessary to effectively manage the enterprise national security space portfolio. As identified by both commissions, only the president has the authority to set national security space policy and to ensure the cooperation, support and resources needed from all agencies and sectors (and their staffs) to carry out a national agenda.

The alignment of chains of commands and the personalities of individuals in those positions can make a difference, but, in fact, only the highest level of leadership, direction and emphasis can overcome the process-driven interagency and bureaucratic policies and practices that have led to the current situation. Only presidential leadership can enforce execution across agency and sector boundaries and demand accountability from those charged with program execution.

Additionally, only presidential-level leadership can demand and ensure that all government national security space assets and related programs ( black and white ) are included as part of the total national architecture. V ery few individuals within the executive or legislative branches have access to the total portfolio of black and white space and other related capabilities, and that level of knowledge is required to make informed decisions concerning the setting of priorities and the allocation of resources.

Finally, with the decision to split the Air Force and NRO portfolios, there is even more of an imperative for presidential leadership and involvement in defining and finding the necessary resources for the national security space program, including provisions for developing and sustaining a qualified cadre of experienced space acquisition personnel .

While the director of national intelligence (previously the director of central intelligence) and the secretary of defense ultimately control national security space capabilities, the fact is their respective bureaucracies and the interagency process have contributed to the current state of the national security space acquisition program. Although there have been a number of changes made in the space acquisition process, they cannot overcome the inherent bureaucratic impediments to acquisition reform.

There continues to be a critical need to elevate space on the national security agenda to enforce proper management and accountability; to restore lost competencies and credibility; and to ensure that the United States does not lose vital capabilities or its technological advantage.

Ken Colucci served as the chief of staff for the National Commission for the Review of the National Reconnaissance Office.