On National Security | Space Force’s tech-heavy vision faces daunting obstacles

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Space Force wants to be the military's first "digital service by design." Deeply rooted Pentagon practices stand in the way

Space Force leaders frequently remind audiences that the newest branch of the U.S. military will be a “digital service” on the leading edge of technology.

“Our goal is to be the first digital service by design, to be born digital as we stand up at this new service,” says Maj. Gen. Kim Crider, the acting chief technology and innovation officer (CTIO) of the Space Force.

Crider further explains: “We want to utilize digital technologies and digital capabilities in all the things that we do and we want to develop a digital workforce.”

The Space Force created the CTIO office, she says, to make sure technology and innovation are on the front burner especially as the service seeks to attract quality talent.

Observers appreciate the enthusiasm but are skeptical of this vision. Some argue that a digital service is incompatible with the Defense Department’s culture and attachment to processes that make it difficult, if not impossible, for the military to keep its weapons and information systems technologically up to date.

It will be interesting to see if the Space Force can adopt digital practices even though it’s part of a large DoD industrial bureaucracy, says Jamie Morin, vice president of the Aerospace Corporation, a government-funded research center that provides technical advice to DoD.

Crider says the Space Force will use “digital engineering” to develop its future Space Force’s tech-heavy vision faces daunting obstacles systems. But Morin wonders if that is going to be possible given DoD’s restrictive policies for sharing data. “And by the way, this is a multilevel problem” across the military services and the entire federal government, Morin said during a virtual panel discussion at the National Defense Industrial Association’s Space Warfighting Industry Forum.

To be on the cutting edge of technology, the Space Force will have to take risks that some products may not work as planned, says Morin. And that is not how the military acquisition business usually works, he adds. A program manager who made “the brilliant attempt that crashed and burned” will not be promoted.

Josh Marcuse, head of strategy and innovation at Google Cloud, says a digital service will have to rethink how tech talent is valued and recognized.

“Coders are the fighter jocks of the Space Force,” he says. The ability to deliver software fast and manage data are key capabilities that will give space forces a competitive advantage, Marcuse adds. The future space generals are going to be the “individuals who understand how the entire system is networked, how the network impacts the entire mission.”

Rachel Cheetham, a Pentagon adviser who supports the Defense Innovation Board, predicts the Space Force will struggle to attract the human capital it needs to be a digital service.

Tech workers in the private sector hear horror stories about the Pentagon’s IT practices. “It can take three months to get access to an email, you have to physically be there in person to get a password unlocked,” says Cheetham. “That impacts the way that you recruit.”

There are some deeply rooted practices in the DoD that can’t be changed, she says. But the mindset that “this is the way we’ve always done it” needs to go away for this vision of a digital force to materialize.

Col. Pete Flores, commander of the Space Training and Readiness Delta, says leaders have to more clearly explain what it means to be a digital service.

It’s not about a specific technology, but it’s about “always being open and receptive to what’s that next thing, and how do we employ those technologies to best effect,” Flores commented during a Space Force Association virtual forum. “So it’s almost an ethos about being able to nimbly interject new technologies, review them, and guess that some of them aren’t going to work.”

Sometimes “we’re gonna fall flat,” says Flores. “It’s OK, we learn from that, we move on to the next thing and find those things that work for us.”

That is a different mindset than what current military officers grew up with. “I get it,” says Flores. The rigid processes that are bedrocks of military culture are not necessarily compatible with the idea of a digital force, he recognizes. “We have to ask people to deliver outcomes, and give them the tools.”


Sandra Erwin

 

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 Sept. 14, 2020 issue.