“On National Security” appears in every issue of SpaceNews magazine. This column ran in the March 11, 2019 issue.
The new buzzy topic in defense procurement is the impeding establishment of a Space Development Agency. Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan and other top U.S. officials have championed the new agency as the answer to sluggish innovation and chronic dysfunction in military programs.
Proponents believe that only a brandnew organization that is not wedded to existing bureaucracies will be able to steer DoD space programs toward a brighter future. And why do they believe that? Because the Space Development Agency will be allowed to operate outside the standard acquisition process. Which begs the question of why the standard acquisition process is so bad that DoD has to create a separate agency with special authorities to circumvent the government’s own process.
Before anyone gets too excited about the SDA and other reforms enacted by Congress in recent years, it’s important to remember that much of this has been tried before in one form or another and the results have not been great, or DoD and Congress would not be trying to shake up the system yet again.
That is the main take-away from a newly released study by the Aerospace Corporation’s Center for Space Policy and Strategy that looks back at the history of defense procurement reforms and how they affected space programs.
The authors pored over four decades of reforms since the creation of the modern defense acquisition system. They noted that every presidential administration and Congress sought to implement what they considered “best practices” for acquisition but no regime has found a lasting solution.
The Aerospace study — titled “Acquisition Reform Regimes on Their Own Terms: Context, Mechanisms, Effects, and Space Program Impact” — was commissioned by the Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center, which itself is undergoing a major reorganization in response to criticism that its massive bureaucracy and complex processes drive up costs and turn satellites programs into decadeslong developments.
Frustrations with the Air Force’s management of space acquisitions have fueled the latest wave of reforms. Congress in the Fiscal Year 2019 National Defense Authorization Act asked the Department of Defense for a report on how to acquire space systems. This led to the DoD proposal to create the Space Development Agency.
“It will likely be several years before we understand what all these changes mean for acquisition and for space,” the study says.
Every attempt to fix defense acquisition started out with “good ideas” that sounded appealing in theory but in practice didn’t deliver the intended results, said Rosalind Lewis, principal director of the acquisition analysis and planning subdivision at the Aerospace Corporation and one of the authors of the study.
One of the themes in the report is the pendulum swing from centralized to decentralized management of programs. This certainly has affected space procurements. To this day, two of the Air Force’s largest programs — Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (recently renamed National Security Space Launch) and OCX, the next-generation operational control system for the GPS 3 satellite constellation — are under Pentagon oversight because of their troubled history.
In the ongoing reorganization of the Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center, one of the goals is to eliminate layers of bureaucracy and delegate authorities to lower echelons of management. Again, this is an old concept. Over the years, leaders have sought to find a sweet spot that empowers subordinates while ensuring senior leaders maintain oversight and general direction. This history of DoD reforms suggests it will be a matter of time before the pendulum swings in the other direction.
The report mentions the Space Based Infrared System (SBIRS) constellation of missile warning satellites as a case study of acquisition reform gone awry. The Pentagon in the late 1990s downsized its procurement workforce and decided that contractors would be empowered to manage big-ticket programs, including SBIRS. According to the study, one former DoD official who attended a Defense Acquisition Board meeting in 2002 said the SBIRS program manager “revealed that he had no warning or insight into the contractor’s growing technical and cost problems.” In 2003, SMC started to reverse the trend directing greater use of specifications and standards to regain control of programs like SBIRS.
If one had to sum up the Aerospace report in one dictum, it would be that those who fail to learn history are doomed to repeat it.
Sandra Erwin covers military space for SpaceNews. She is a veteran national security journalist and former editor of National Defense magazine.