“On National Security” appears in every issue of SpaceNews magazine. This column ran in the Jan. 21, 2019 issue.
Top Pentagon procurement official Ellen Lord during a recent trip to California made a stop at Vox Space in El Segundo. A subsidiary of Virgin Orbit, the company sees the Defense Department as a major customer for its air-launched rockets to send satellites into orbit.
Lord was briefed on the company’s LauncherOne aircraft that carries small rockets. The vehicle is scheduled to launch an experimental military payload to low Earth orbit later this year. Lord’s was one of several high-level visits that the company has organized with Pentagon officials over the past year, hoping to get clarity on DoD plans to procure space services from commercial companies.
A central question on the minds of executives is “what is next for Vox to be able to deliver timely launch to DoD?” said Mandy Vaughn, the company’s president. What she took away from the meeting with Lord: While the Pentagon says it wants fast and lower cost launch services from the private sector, it is not making necessary changes to its procurement methods to make that happen.
“It’s not a technical thing, it’s really an acquisition thing,” Vaughn said Jan. 8 during a panel discussion at a space technology conference hosted by the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics. Other players in the small-launch market — Rocket Lab, Vector, Stratolaunch — are jockeying for commercial and military business, and “making things exciting,” said Vaughn.
The Pentagon for years has talked about shifting investments from big-ticket satellites in geosynchronous orbit to smaller, cheaper spacecraft in lower orbits. It is part of a broad vision known as “responsive space” that also assumes DoD will be able to tap into a competitive pool of launch providers to fly satellites on short notice.
The rhetoric about responsive space and a conversion to low Earth orbit capabilities has amped up under the Trump administration. The Pentagon is moving to create a Space Development Agency to bring commercial innovation into DoD. The administration also is seeking congressional support to stand up a Space Force as a separate military branch that, advocates believe, will push for change and faster modernization of space capabilities.
But so far there are few signs that DoD is willing to leap into a new way of doing business so it can benefit from private space innovation. “The air launch capability of companies like Vox and Stratolaunch is absolutely something we need. But it’s not a need that anybody has articulated,” said Doug Loverro, space industry consultant and former deputy assistant secretary of defense for space policy.
Congress has directed DoD to experiment and prototype new technologies using nontraditional contracting methods with less red tape, but the bulk of military procurements must follow an arcane review process. And they must be supported by “requirements,” which is DoD-speak for official documents that define the desired functions and performance of a system.
Col. Eric Felt, director of the Space Vehicles Directorate at the Air Force Research Laboratory, called the requirements process “one of our worst enemies.” Why? Because systems can’t be acquired unless they meet Pentagon-approved requirements. And it is virtually impossible for the ponderous requirements bureaucracy to write documents that reflect rapidly moving capabilities available in the commercial industry.
Felt put it bluntly: The idea that the United States should advance space technologies at a faster pace is “incompatible with our broken requirements process.” Many research and experimentation projects are underway, but there’s no path to “operationalizing” promising technologies. “We’re birthing all these babies. These are steps in the right direction. But somebody has to pick the baby up and mature it, and do it quickly,” said Felt.
Loverro mentioned Air Force efforts to modernize the Space Based Infrared System — a constellation of missile-warning satellites — as an example of what is wrong with today’s procurement process. “We know proliferated LEO is on the cusp of the future and yet the needs for the next generation of SBIRS look a lot like the last generation of SBIRS satellites,” he said.
What must happen, Loverro said, is DoD must “break the requirements cycle” to allow emerging technologies and ideas to become part of the space architecture. Everyone agrees that DoD should adapt its procurement process so it can be a real customer to commercial space innovators, but nobody has articulated how to do that. That remains a huge frustration to companies like Vox that are investing huge sums of money into products on the assumption that the government will buy them. As Vaughn put it: “Things like prototypes can help inform the new space companies to make sure we’re developing capabilities you can use, or make sure we don’t do something stupid.”
Sandra Erwin covers military space for SpaceNews. She is a veteran national security journalist and former editor of National Defense magazine.