“On National Security” appears in every issue of SpaceNews magazine. This column ran in the Sept. 10, 2018 issue.
One of the running themes in the 2019 National Defense Authorization Act is Congress trying to light a fire under the Defense Department with regard to technological innovation. The massive bill includes dozens of provisions that highlight the narrowing gap between the United States and rising military competitors like China and Russia in areas such as artificial intelligence, hypersonic and directed energy weapons, and space.
The NDAA goes as far as to direct the Defense Department to develop an “alternative acquisition system” for space. So far nobody seems to be able to explain what exactly that means, but it’s a blatant slam at the current system. Deputy Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan will be responsible for implementing this provision. Shanahan submitted a proposal to Congress last month to reorganize military space — as part of the larger effort to create a Space Force — that includes the establishment of a Space Development Agency. He said the idea is to bring speed and agility into acquisitions.
The Space Development Agency — if it survives the political and legislative gauntlet — could be the alternative acquisition system that Congress is asking for. Lawmakers who have grown impatient with the Pentagon’s procurement bureaucracy have been encouraged by Shanahan’s actions.
Congressional reformers also see an ally in Undersecretary of Defense for Acquisition Mike Griffin, who often expresses exasperation with the lethargic DoD weapons-making machine. With regard to space, he has been trying to accelerate the development of a constellation of warning satellites to defend from hypersonic missiles. Griffin has given the Missile Defense Agency the go-ahead to start drawing up the architecture.
The space sensor layer could be a litmus test for a change in the way the Pentagon acquires satellites and payloads. Griffin believes the Pentagon has to pivot away from exquisite spacecraft and take advantage of commercial technology. Which is why he is a champion of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s Blackjack program.
DARPA wants to deploy an experimental commercial LEO constellation with hosted payloads. If Blackjack is successful, it would dramatically alter the landscape for future military space acquisitions.
Fred Kennedy, director of DARPA’s Tactical Technology Office, predicts Blackjack will be a disruptor of what he calls the “broken culture” of DoD acquisitions. “The culture is a risk-averse culture. It wants to spend a lot of time fixing and testing, testing and reviewing. That’s a problem,” Kennedy said at the Conference on Small Satellites last month in Utah.
“Our adversaries are figuring out how to do things more quickly, more cheaply,” he said. “We are not getting it as fast as they are.”
Why? Because the United States has always been way ahead and didn’t need to rush, he said. “Exquisite is a great moniker for the things we build.”
Kennedy says there’s momentum for doing something different in space. “I think the key is small satellites, disaggregation, distribution of capability, very small systems that are easy to build, easy to replenish.”
This could be the answer to get a space sensor layer that doesn’t cost tens of billions of dollars. The concept behind Blackjack is to leverage the commercial sector for the ground segment, space segment and user segment, said Kennedy. One way to shake up the culture is to say “It’s OK if a satellite fails on orbit because you know you can build another one in short order to get it back up,” he added. “When we build exquisite, we create an exquisite culture, a risk-averse culture. When you build simple and cheap, you get a culture that wants to innovate.”
Kennedy pointed to the microcomputer industry. It built standardized, simple, mass-producible hardware. “Bring that to space and watch what happens.”
Congress also seems bullish on Blackjack; it increased its funding by $110 million for 2019.
Sandra Erwin covers military space for SpaceNews. She is a veteran national security journalist and former editor of National Defense magazine.