New head of Space Force acquisitions looks to get back to basics

by
One priority for Frank Calvelli, assistant secretary of the Air Force for space acquisition and integration, is to impose discipline in procurement programs

WASHINGTON — The Space Force’s new acquisition executive Frank Calvelli says there is no quick fix for problems that for years have plagued defense procurements, such as cost overruns and schedule delays. 

His plan is straightforward. “We need to make sure we have really good acquisition and contracting strategies upfront. We have to execute and deliver on time,” Calvelli said in an interview with SpaceNews.

Calvelli on May 5 was sworn in as assistant secretary of the Air Force for space acquisition and integration, a new position Congress created in the 2020 National Defense Authorization Act due to concerns that there were too many agencies overseeing space procurements and the Space Force needed its own civilian leader to keep projects on track. 

One of his first moves will be to impose discipline into acquisitions, a skill he learned over a 30-year career at the National Reconnaissance Office, where he oversaw satellite and ground system acquisitions. 

“A big push for me is going to be how do we set a program baseline right upfront so that we can actually achieve it,” he said. 

A number of Space Force programs are years behind schedule and billions of dollars over budget, issues that Calvelli believes could be avoided by developing realistic cost estimates and timelines, staying with the plan and holding contractors accountable. 

Examples of troubled programs that Calvelli said he is monitoring closely include the next-generation OCX ground control system for the Global Positioning System constellation, and a space-tracking system called ATLAS, short for Advanced Tracking and Launch Analysis System.

ATLAS was designed to replace an old legacy system used for tracking space objects and is expected to enter service sometime next spring, years later than envisioned. “I know it’s important to the Hill as well as to [the chief of the Space Force] General Raymond,” said Calvelli. “So I’m keeping a close eye on that.”

“The infamous OCX program is supposed to transition to operations next year as well. So we will keep an eye on that one as well,” he said. 

Calvelli said these setbacks can be blamed both on government mismanagement and on contractors not delivering what was expected.

“From what I can tell in my initial assessment is that both the government and industry are at fault,” he said. “It seems like the government’s never happy with what the requirements are, and they may change them from time to time,” which drives up costs. Again, he pointed to the problem of “not having a set baseline and schedule.”

In the ATLAS program, it’s not clear there was a baseline or schedule, he said. “And that, to me, has been one of the reasons why we’re having some challenges. So we need to stay focused. It’s part of that discipline process where we agree on a set of requirements, we put it on contract, we have a clear plan and we execute to that plan.”

It appears that there’s been a lack of discipline, “sometimes both on the government side and on the industry side when it comes to programs like ATLAS,” he added.

Congressional concerns

The Space Force will have to give Congress a progress report sometime next year on what it’s doing to prevent acquisition failures. The House Appropriations Committee in a report accompanying the fiscal year 2023 defense appropriations bill directs the Space Force to conduct a “rigorous technical analysis matched with executable plans resourced by realistic budgets.” The current plan, the committee said, “does not meet this expectation particularly with respect to aligning priorities within realistic budgets.”

Calvelli did not comment specifically on the HAC report. But he said he wants to make sure project managers “properly resource and fund programs across the five-year defense program.” He also will advocate for the use of independent cost estimates. “I need my government program managers to proactively oversee and manage their programs.”

On the contractor side, he said, “I need industry to deliver executable proposals. And what I mean by that is proposals that have realistic costs and realistic schedules that they can actually meet.”

“I will tell you from my experience, given the competitive environment, industry tends to be optimistic on schedule and optimistic on cost,” said. If the government accepts those projections at faith value, “we end up setting not the best baseline to execute against.” This puts programs at risk of poor performance or even cancellation. 

“This is really a partnership with industry,” he said. “We need their help to be successful and we need to do our job by putting out good RFPs [requests for proposals] upfront and good contracts, strategies and incentives.”

“And industry needs to do their part by giving us executable proposals and delivering the program that they committed to,” he said. “That’s going to be my initial focus area.”

One way to ensure contractors don’t get away with unrealistic proposals is to make that part of the proposal evaluation, Calvelli said. The Pentagon’s independent cost estimators provide reliable data that can be used to assess contractors’ bids, he said. “And so what you do is you make schedule realism and cost realism a major element in any competition.”

“And if the numbers are dramatically lower than what the independent folks say in terms of costs and schedule, you throw those proposals out,” he said. 

“The other thing we have to do is communicate with industry, to make sure that they know that we’re expecting these realistic proposals,” he said. 

Integration of GPS enterprise

Calvelli said he has spent a lot of time reading Government Accountability Office reports critical of DoD’s management of the GPS enterprise, and he sees these assessments as cautionary tales. 

The GPS enterprise includes three segments: satellites in space, the ground control system and receivers installed on weapons systems and handheld devices. But each segment is managed separately.

To provide additional security for military users, newer GPS satellites broadcast a stronger signal called M-code. But despite greater availability of M-code, most U.S. military forces still can’t take advantage of the more secure signal because they don’t have compatible user equipment.

GAO for years has called out the Pentagon for not producing enough M-code-capable receiver equipment and for taking too long to install these receivers across all weapon systems.

Calvelli said he plans to take on this problem. “We seem to have a disconnect between space and ground systems,” he said. “If we’re late on the space segment, and we finally launch it, if the ground is not ready to actually use it, it’s even worse. And so this whole program discipline is really what I really want to focus on.”

The GPS program is an example of where the “integration” part of Calvelli’s job comes into play. 

Another is the missile-warning satellite architecture, where multiple agencies are involved. Calvelli has to coordinate programs run by the Space Systems Command, the Space Development Agency, the Space Rapid Capabilities Office, the Missile Defense Agency and some shared with the intelligence community.

To ease this task, Congress gave Calvelli’s job authority to chair a Space Acquisition Council to oversee, direct and manage acquisition and integration of space programs across the national security space enterprise.

“Congress gave me this interesting tool called the Space Acquisition Council,” Calvelli said. “It’s supposed to be the integrating forum across the different organizations that I control, across the services to make sure that programs are heading in the right direction. And so I have that tool that I need to take advantage of.”

Calvelli said smoother integration of programs will help achieve one of his top priorities, which is to “drive speed into our acquisitions.”

As the U.S. faces threats from foreign adversaries, it’s important to accelerate technology developments and procurements, he said. “Space capabilities give our warfighters a strategic edge,” he said. “One of the big things about space is that it’s a key enabler for air, for sea and for land. We have to properly integrate space with all the warfighting domains to take full advantage of that.”

Use of commercial systems

Another pressing issue in Space Force programs is to make systems more resilient against anti-satellite weapons. Raymond and other leaders have called for a shift in DoD’s space architecture, moving from fewer, exquisite satellites to a more diverse, proliferated architecture and  increased use of commercial space assets to complement national security space assets.

“I like the diversification of the architecture a lot,” said Calvelli. He is especially enthused about the work being done by the Space Development Agency to deploy a large constellation of missile-tracking and communications satellites in low Earth orbit.

“I think it’s really great,” he said of the SDA program. A proliferated network combined with some of the more traditional satellites “adds a lot of diversity and resiliency to the architecture.”

Using commercial space systems also adds resiliency but the Space Force has yet to figure out how to integrate government and private networks. “I think we need to really have a plan. I’m not sure we’ve developed a vision,” he said. “Having our adversaries not know where commercial ends and government systems begin creates confusion that actually could be really good for our country from a resiliency perspective.”