“On National Security” appears in every issue of SpaceNews magazine. This column ran in the Aug. 27, 2018 issue.

One central piece of a future Space Force would be a Space Development Agency. So says a Pentagon report that lays out several options for reorganizing military space forces. The creation of a Space Development Agency is listed as a crucial first step toward establishing an independent service for space.

Deputy Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan speaks with staff members before a National Space Council meeting at the John F. Kennedy Space Center Feb. 21, 2018. Credit: DoD
Deputy Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan speaks with staff members before a National Space Council meeting at the John F. Kennedy Space Center Feb. 21, 2018. Credit: DoD

The Pentagon’s top leaders have been very much in favor of overhauling the procurement structure and the space reorganization is an opportunity to break some china. In fact, even before Trump publicly mentioned the Space Force, the Pentagon had pushed for a shake-up of the Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center that oversees about 85 percent of the military’s space acquisitions.

The Space Development Agency would not replace SMC but likely would step on some toes. According to the DoD report, the new agency would be tasked to “develop and field space capabilities at speed and scale.” That may not have been meant as a direct dig at SMC but it certainly sounds like one.

The explanation of why the Pentagon is proposing a Space Development Agency goes back to what Undersecretary for Research and Engineering Mike Griffin and others have said about the United States losing its next-gen weapons development mojo and DoD being stuck in an innovation rut.

Griffin often brings up the nation’s gloried history of rocket and missile development during the Cold War. The DoD space report does as well. “History demonstrates that strong technical competence and leadership, concentration of resources, and abeyance of bureaucracy produce exceptional results,” the report said. It lists examples like Gen. Bernard Schriever’s development of the intercontinental ballistic missile, Adm. Hyman Rickover’s development of the Navy’s nuclear enterprise, and the development of missile defense through the Strategic Defense Initiative Organization.

The Space Development Agency would seek a “shift from an acquisition organization and mindset to a development organization focused on experimentation, prototyping and accelerated fielding … a change from a matrixed and overlapping structure to a concentrated and decoupled structure to generate speed.”

Deputy Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan — the primary author of the DoD report, like Griffin, is a frequent critic of the DoD acquisition system. He mentioned that one of the tasks of the Space Development Agency will be to “leverage commercial.” In space, DoD should capture the innovation happening in the private sector but regain its “technical chops,” Shanahan said. The new agency would not operate like a typical DoD organization. There would be less red tape, fewer layers of oversight and more tolerance for risk.

A Space Development Agency would have the “ability and capacity to experiment” and look for commercial technologies that have military utility, said Shanahan. “That gives us the ability to accelerate.”

Something that is not addressed in Shanahan’s report is how DoD envisions working with the commercial sector that is bankrolling a lot of new space technology. It’s an issue that industry analyst Byron Callan describes as the “desire versus the reality of changing the structure of the defense sector.” Goals such as “leveraging commercial” are going to be tough to achieve if the industry remains dominated by entrenched contractors that operate a lot like the government. During a keynote speech at a recent industry conference, Griffin called on CEOs to clean up their internal processes and help DoD move programs faster.

The issue came up last week during a hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee. Sen. Angus King, the Maine independent who caucuses with the Democrats, noted that the cards are stacked against commercial companies that have products the military wants but don’t have expertise in government contracting. “A small company in Silicon Valley may have really valuable product, a bright idea. We’ve had testimony before this committee that smaller companies in Silicon Valley simply have given up contracting with the Defense Department because of those barriers.”

This is a problem that even the Space Development Agency may not be able to fix.

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...