“On National Security” appears in every issue of SpaceNews magazine. This column ran in the Dec. 3, 2018 issue.

The Pentagon is moving to establish a Space Development Agency as early as next year. According to Deputy Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan, the SDA will field new capabilities faster, capture technologies from the commercial space industry and consolidate overlapping research projects across DoD. The agency is one pillar of a broader plan to reorganize space forces and programs under a new military branch.

Greater efficiency and innovation in space programs seem worthy goals. But why is a new agency needed to do that?

In the view of one military procurement expert, the Space Development Agency is a shortsighted response to deep-rooted problems that have plagued defense procurement for years.

“I support and encourage every effort we can make to improve space acquisition, but fixing space acquisition has very little to do with why we need a separate space service or space agency,” said retired Lt. Gen. James “Kevin” McLaughlin, former deputy commander of U.S. Cyber Command.

McLaughlin led Air Force space units and worked at the National Reconnaissance Office before becoming Cyber Command’s No. 2. He also served on a blue-ribbon panel — known as the Rumsfeld Commission — that in 2001 delivered a massive report recommending management and organizational reforms in national security space.

McLaughlin saw firsthand what happened when DoD more than a decade ago also decided that a new organization was the answer to sluggish procurement and lackluster performance in space programs.

“My experience as the first director of the Operationally Responsive Space Office left lasting impressions,” he said. DoD stood up the ORS office in 2004 because Pentagon leadership was convinced the Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center was broken. “I’m hearing the same statements from senior leaders today when they say that Air Force space acquisition and the industry that supports the Air Force is too expensive and takes too long,” he said.

The ORS office was conceived to tap into then-emerging technologies — such as smaller satellites and techniques like hosting military payloads on commercial satellites — to reduce the cost and expedite the fielding of military capabilities.

“I don’t think we were very successful then or have been since then,” said McLaughlin. He cites three reasons: First, a shortage of experienced personnel. Second is the convoluted defense procurement process and rules that govern all DoD procurements, not just space. “You need very short chains of command and exemptions from most of the Pentagon and service bureaucracy to achieve radically reduced costs and shorter acquisition timelines.” Third are budgets. Spending on space at the time was getting squeezed to fund other military priorities.

To the Air Force’s credit, it still managed to produce world-class satellites and launch vehicles. “I have to say that while I’m not an apologist for the Air Force, SMC, or the industry that supports them, you have to understand those organizations have structured themselves in a manner aimed at not failing in critical space missions and in complying with oversight and compliance rules dictated by the Pentagon and the Congress.“

If DoD wants improvements in space acquisitions, McLaughlin said, it should give existing organizations experienced people, eliminate complex chains of command and wasteful bureaucracy, and increase the budgets of high-priority programs before any new agency is added to the mix.

McLaughlin favors the establishment of a separate military branch for space, but for reasons that have nothing to do with procurement. He worries that there is a rush to fund new agencies before there is a clear answer on what problems need to be solved. “Creating a new U.S. Space Command or a Space Development Agency doesn’t really fix the core problems.”

Whether space remains in the Air Force or is moved to a Space Force, DoD must ensure that the service is organized to develop skilled space officers, with the knowledge and expertise to tell SMC or the Space Development Agency what they should buy in order to prevail in a future space war. They also are the leaders that would be needed to fill the ranks of U.S. Space Command.

“Combatant commands and acquisition organizations don’t create deeply experienced and expert service cultures that provide the units and people required to write doctrine, define requirements, develop and acquire advanced space capabilities, and execute space operations,” said McLaughlin. “Military services do that.”

The Rumsfeld Commission 18 years ago called for the Air Force to restructure its personnel system to better support the space career fields, increase promotion opportunities and strengthen the space culture within the Air Force. McLaughlin laments that the Air Force did not do that and consequently missed an opportunity to develop a new generation of space warriors, setting the conditions for the current movement to take space out of the Air Force.

Sandra Erwin

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

Sandra Erwin writes about military space programs, policy, technology and the industry that supports this sector. She has covered the military, the Pentagon, Congress and the defense industry for nearly two decades as editor of NDIA’s National Defense...