Over the course of just six months, three senior defense officials responsible for technology programs announced they were stepping down, voicing disappointment in a culture they view as an impediment to innovation.
Preston Dunlap, who resigned in April as chief architect of the U.S. Air Force and the Space Force, said he could not explain why defense organizations continue to try to reinvent the wheel, developing technologies that already exist in the commercial market.
The director of the Silicon Valley-based Defense Innovation Unit, Michael Brown, recently announced he would be leaving his post in September and expressed disappointment about a lack of institutional support from DoD for the work done by DIU to bring commercial technology into military programs.
Then there’s Nicolas Chaillan, the former chief software officer of the Air Force. He departed in October and has voiced concerns about lagging DoD efforts to advance critical technologies where China is gaining an edge, such as artificial intelligence, machine learning and cyber warfare.
Last month, the Atlantic Council delivered a pointed critique of space-related defense procurement culture. A report titled “Small Satellites: The Implications for National Security,” calls out DoD for ignoring pleas to “buy commercial first.”
Nicholas Eftimiades, the author of the report, is a former U.S. intelligence officer and now a nonresident fellow at the Atlantic Council. He argues that DoD has to accelerate its use of commercial space technology — particularly small satellites and services from smallsat constellations — in order to stay ahead of China.
DoD’s entrenched acquisition processes are a problem, he said. The system was designed to minimize the possibility of failure, creating a cultural clash with a commercial space industry that is more tolerant of risk. The Space Force has taken some steps to bridge gaps, he added, but that is more the exception than the rule.
“We’re at a pivotal point,” Eftimiades said. “If we don’t make these changes and do it now, we are going to lose space superiority to China within the next 10 years.”
Leveraging commercial space technology is not just important for national security but also to bolster the domestic industrial base, Eftimiades said. “To date, no commercial small satellite service has proven itself viable without government support. And yet the growth of this industry will dramatically impact U.S. national security.”
During a webinar on the Atlantic Council report, space industry veteran Paul Graziani said he worries that despite calls to action from senior leaders to use more commercial technology, the DoD acquisition bureaucracy will create obstacles.
Graziani is CEO of COMSPOC Corp., a provider of space situational awareness services and software.
The defense acquisition system is optimized to buy aircraft carriers, stealth bombers and submarines, he said. “They’re great at that,” but working with commercial space is “this whole new world.”
DoD leaders assert they want to take advantage of the competitive pricing and innovation of the commercial sector, said Graziani. But to do that, they need to change the system to make it easier for startups and entrepreneurial businesses to challenge the established players, he said.
The Atlantic Council’s “Small Satellites” report is one of several dozen studies and high-level reviews that, over the past 20 years, have called for changes in defense acquisitions. “But nothing’s happened,” said Eftimiades. “And we keep hearing the department saying, ‘we’re going to look at this, we’re going to look at that.’”
The report does highlight the Space Development Agency as a bright spot in military space procurement.
SDA, established in 2019 to disrupt the traditional approach to military space acquisitions, is on its way to doing that, Eftimiades noted.
The agency is building a constellation of small satellites in low Earth orbit using commercial products, and moving at a pace rarely seen in defense programs. SDA, however, is only one cog in the wheel.
Sandra Erwin covers military space for SpaceNews. She is a veteran national security journalist and former editor of National Defense magazine.
“On National Security” appears in every issue of SpaceNews magazine. This column ran in the June 2022 issue.