Op-ed | Getting Space Force acquisition right in 2020
Getting the Space Force right and creating the first new U.S. armed service in more than half a century will be a herculean task. Uniforms and insignia must be chosen, logos created, and detailed organizational structures and diagrams established. While such trappings and baselines for the new service is necessary, however, they are insufficient to respond to the critical threat posed by Russia and China in space.
Meeting that growing challenge will require, first and foremost, getting Space Force acquisition right.
Indeed, one of the most significant criticisms of the Air Force when it comes to space is the presence of too many decision-makers and offices engaged in an overly bureaucratic acquisition process. U.S. Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Ala.) carries around a card detailing that, by his office’s count, some 60 offices are involved in the acquisition process. You can argue and quibble with the exact count, the overall thrust of that criticism rings true. Pentagon procurement in general, and Air Force acquisition specifically, is a slow, laborious, and Byzantine process.
Space Force must streamline its acquisition process and accelerate needed reforms this year, not in a few years as some have interpreted the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) language.
A legislative foundation already exists for smarter and faster acquisitions. A new Assistant Secretary for Space Acquisition and Integration should, with the right appointee and political backing, direct and oversee the purchasing and fielding of space and space-related systems. This Senate-confirmable position will chair the Space Force Acquisition Council and direct the Space and Missile Systems Center (SMC), Space Rapid Capabilities Office (Space RCO), and the Space Development Agency (SDA).
In the case of the Space and Missile Systems Center and to a lesser degree the Space RCO, and to an even lesser degree the Space Development Agency, the Space Force will inherit diverse acquisitions cultures and mission sets. Streamlining these three unique cultures into one coherent whole will be a challenge, and almost certainly necessitate some Pentagon Jiu-Jitsu. This is to say nothing of the growth of the Office of Secretary of Defense oversight that needs to be streamlined as well.
It is critical that the roles and responsibilities of the Space Force, its subsidiary entities, and the broader space community across the Department of Defense be clarified and focused. Right now, space is akin to the soccer ball on a field of 8-year-olds — everyone is running to the ball. The interest is commendable, but duplicative effort is expensive, time consuming, and distracts from the core threat — Russia and China.
Refocusing budgeting and programmatic activity will also go a long way toward making the new Space Force truly more agile. While there has been a lot of movement at a policy level, the budgetary realities of where the money flows haven’t changed very much. Until the Space Force incentivizes new and novel solutions to emerging space challenges, the same products will continue to be purchased.
For example, take launch. The National Security Space Launch program (NSSL), the successor to the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) program, is ripe for reform. Designed at a time when commercial launch was not truly viable, it is locked into a culture of high mission assurance and risk avoidance. That culture makes it slow, ponderous, and inefficient. It also ignores new and emerging capabilities both in terms of the rockets themselves and the payloads they put aloft.
Reusability, something inconceivable at the time of EELV’s creation, is becoming the norm. SpaceX is regularly launching, recovering, and reusing its Falcon 9 boosters. By the end of 2019, Blue Origin had launched and recovered the same New Shephard rocket six times. Rocket Lab is also getting in on the reusability game with preliminary tests aimed at proving recovery of its Electron.
At the same time, SpaceX fielded 120 Starlink satellites in 2019, and launched another 60 of the data relay satellites in one launch earlier this month, with an ultimate goal of several thousand satellites orbiting the globe. Amazon’s Project Kuiper is set to do the same, as are other companies.
Taken together, cheaper and reusable launch, with smaller and more capable satellites means there are new and increasingly diverse capabilities on offer. That offers the new Space Force a historic opportunity to change the way it approaches launch. The vision and goals should be to diversify the national security launch portfolio, increase competition, and explore new and innovative technologies.
If the Space Force remains locked into a heavy and monolithic approach to launch, the things that are put into orbit will remain heavy and monolithic. There are, of course, missions that require these one-off, gold-plated payloads. There are some missions for which there will never be a commercial case. But by using the same requirements year in and year out, artificially blocking off innovation via the NSSL, the Space Force will miss significant opportunities for the next generation of space capabilities.
The greatest challenge to the Space Force and the success of the mission is not adversary action, but rather getting our own bureaucracy and structures right today. This means changing the acquisition culture and mindset. Legacy systems must be integrated with emerging capabilities. Strategic capabilities must be aligned with tactical needs.
Creating a shiny new Space Force with the same cultural roadblocks to innovation as the current system is the surest way to failure. Getting acquisition right, however, will launch the Space Force into the new decade and the great beyond.
Joshua C. Huminski is the director of the National Security Space Program and the Mike Rogers Center for Intelligence & Global Affairs at the Center for the Study of the Presidency & Congress.
This article originally appeared in the Jan. 20, 2020 issue of SpaceNews magazine.