On National Security | Congress says ‘not so fast’ to speed-obsessed Space Development Agency

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“On National Security” appears in every issue of SpaceNews magazine. This column ran in the May 20, 2019 issue.

Congress’ review of the 2020 defense budget is just getting underway and already House appropriators have sent a strong signal to the Pentagon that they are not going to rubber stamp funding requests for the Space Development Agency.

A House Appropriations defense subcommittee draft bill would block funds for the SDA until 90 days after the Secretary of Defense submits the following reports to the congressional defense committees:

  • A description of the programs and projects the SDA plans to carry out over the next three years, including associated personnel and funding requirements.
  • A description of how the Air Force and the SDA will work together to develop an agreed-upon space architecture.
  • An explanation of how the SDA and the Air Force will work together to prototype, demonstrate new capabilities, and transition them to actual acquisition programs.

The appropriators’ language reflects concerns that lawmakers already have expressed in hearings and letters to DoD officials: the Pentagon created the Space Development Agency but provided few specifics about what it will do, and how it fits into the larger landscape of military organizations that develop space technologies.

SDA Director Fred Kennedy and his boss Mike Griffin, undersecretary of defense for research and engineering, have explained in broad terms what the agency plans to do: Design a “proliferated architecture” of mass produced commercial satellites that would operate in low Earth orbit providing communications, early warning and other services that currently are performed by fewer but hugely expensive satellites. The LEO-based architecture, they argue, will be more resilient to attacks and will take advantage of commercial investments in broadband-delivering megaconstellations.

In a report to Congress, DoD said the agency will “shift from an acquisition organization and mindset to a development organization … focus on experimentation, prototyping and accelerated fielding.”

As Kennedy has argued, the military procurement culture that favors “exquisite systems” cannot respond fast enough to threats posed by Chinese and Russian anti-satellite weapons and space capabilities.

The idea of an agency that can advance technology faster than traditional organizations is indeed appealing to DoD leaders and to many on Capitol Hill. But the speed of acquisition is only half the equation. It doesn’t matter how fast a system is acquired if the equipment doesn’t satisfy what the Pentagon calls “warfighter requirements.”

LEO constellations are cool and trendy, but will commanders in the field get any real value from them?

These are questions that are asked about almost every DoD acquisition before it is approved. A panel of four-star generals called the Joint Requirements Oversight Council vets programs to make sure that what DoD is spending money on has a military utility. SDA programs, however, would be exempt from JROC reviews so they can move faster.

The danger is that SDA could build a technically advanced “threatdriven” architecture but troops in the field could not communicate with it because they don’t have the right terminals or don’t know how to use it. Then it would just end up being unused.

Kennedy has said the SDA will take care of that problem by acquiring easy-to-operate commercial terminals, minimally ruggedize them and field them to troops. That sounds good in theory, a military officer told me. “But wait until it starts raining, sleeting, or a private drops that thing and it stops working. I’m sure they can field that stuff very quickly but if it doesn’t work in the mud, if it gets wet and stops working, that’s when you can get into really big problems.”

The officer said SDA strikes many as a “give me the money and get out of my way” kind of an organization and trust that in the end DoD is going to have the greatest equipment.

The SDA could end up developing really nifty systems but they won’t mean much unless a general or a commander somewhere says, “I need this to do my job.”


Sandra Erwin

 

Sandra Erwin covers military space for SpaceNews. She is a veteran national security journalist and former editor of National Defense magazine.