"While we have to move into a more risk tolerant environment, the 13 consecutive failures of Corona launches also would not be accepted today," the author writes. The photo above shows the Corona program's Discoverer 14 satellite launching Aug. 18, 1960, on a Thor booster lifting off from Vandenberg Air Force Base, California. Credit: Smithsonian National Air & Space Museum

There are two drivers that cause change.  The first is an internally fueled desire to simply get better.  The second is a response to external actions.  For most of the last 35 years the Space community has been fueled by an internal desire to get better.  However, there now are two external actions that are pushing us to change: 1. Our adversaries have shown they can turn new technology into mission systems in the 3-4-year timeframe, creating emerging threats that we will struggle to counter, and 2. They have demonstrated space-based offensive space superiority systems that show that when they desire, they can eliminate US, ally and commercial systems.  Threat No.1 is fueling a move to reforming acquisition toward being able to get systems from technology to orbit inside 3-4 years, and threat No. 2 is pushing us toward resilient constellations, where the mission can endure despite the loss of systems.  These two threats are not just motivating us to speed up acquisition, but are also driving us to buy lower cost, shorter lifetime systems in larger system constellations with the ability to endure losses and reconstitute rapidly when necessary.

Certainly, we have taken some important steps, such as setting up the SDA, SMC 2.0, moving ORS to an RCO, implementing section 804 of the 2016 NDAA, and OTA’s. However, these changes in and of themselves are not enough. It will require every element of the entire process to change.  We cannot kid ourselves that attacking a few elements of the acquisition machine and maybe enabling some elements of the system to go faster in the near term is a solution to the problem.  We simply must address every single element of the acquisition system, from the acquisition agencies and their rules, to the funding agencies, to the acquisition review, and the requirements processes.  We must fundamentally address all the elements of what we buy AND how we buy it.

So, there has been some work and efforts toward getting faster, however, they are not enough. We are currently on a footpath to faster acquisition, and we need to be on a highway. SMC is organizing to get faster, the SDA is organizing to be fast, and OTA’s and section 804 are providing some near-term tools, but I am afraid we are declaring victory too early.

“What can be given can be taken away”

Yes, we are using Section 804 and OTA’s to speed up acquisition, but as time goes on, the insight machine will want to see more and more information before key decisions are made and want to revert tothe same processes as before, and the advantages of 804’s and OTA’s will erode.  In fact, just after a year or so of using these tools, there is already talk of increasing oversight and recent HAC language put a hold on all 804 funding.  Additionally, OSD/A&S has expressed an aversion to 804s and appear to desire to discontinue them.

In 2016 Congress included section 804 of the NDAA to allow the DoD to get prototypes up and on-orbit quickly using more mature technology, allowing lower risk and minimizing the need for oversight. The idea was to encourage DoD to grab existing technology and build prototypes that can be produced and fielded within two to five years.  As Dr. Roper has said “This was a “crystal clear message” from Congress that it wants DoD acquisitions to move faster.”  However, saying that, and being willing to take all steps necessary throughout the enterprise, are two different things.  Congress worries that the DoD will use Section 804 and OTA’s in a way they do not deem appropriate, and therefore want more review and reporting. And if they conduct more reviews, the AF and DoD reviewers must pre-review first.

I believe we must move in the other direction and somehow, we need to transition to where the processes and techniques used in 804 and OTA’s become the norm for not just prototypes, R&D programs, and emergencies, but for operational systems as well.  If we exclude what we call “Capstone” programs they will simply become the “Fat juicy attractive targets” that cause us to lose warfighting capabilities.

So, we need to embrace the current actions as fundamental to ALL space acquisitions, and take on changing the other elements of the current acquisition processes.   This will require major uncomfortable changes from Congress, the DoD, the Air Force, and the contractors supporting the building of these Space Systems.  Right now, we have a foot both in the past and in the future, and that is not a comfortable place to be.  Therefore, we need more than just the processes in 804 and OTA’s, we need a way to provide transparency up that chain of decision makers, so that they are informed.

Making the “how we buy it” element (the acquisition machine) move faster requires some institutional process changes and obviously key among the changes is that decision making needs to be pushed down the chain.  While Congress also wants to go faster, they are clearly concerned with visibility and transparency.  So, the question is, “How do we balance Congress’s need for visibility with the need to make decisions at lower levels, and make these decisions quickly without onerous reviews?”

We certainly moved quickly in the past.  The first DMSP was built in 10 months, so there are lessons to be learned from the early days of Space Development.  However, there are things that existed that would never fly today.  Colonel Lee Battle, the legendary developer of the Corona program, had a set of rules, many of which still have applicability, however one of his rules was “Don’t over-communicate with higher headquarters.”  This is something that would never work today. And while we have to move into a more risk tolerant environment, the 13 consecutive failures of Corona launches also would not be accepted today.  While we must indeed move toward a more risk tolerant environment, and accept that losses will occur, both from development and from adversaries and still have the mission operate.  We must design, build and operate to this reality. The result of this new mindset will be: 1) Proliferation of systems that are lower cost, 2) Resilience in the constellations, with on-orbit redundancy and the ability to reconstitute rapidly, and 3) Shorter life, more affordable systems, with continuous technology insertion. If SMC or SDA has set up an organization that can move quickly, but all the organizations outside of AFSPC do not change, we will not have solved the problem.


Any change, even a change for the better, is always accompanied by discomforts.” — Arnold Bennett

One key element in the ability to both move faster and become more affordable, is leveraging the robust commercial space marketplace.  Senior AF and DOD leadership has been espousing this.  However, we need to change heritage requirements and purchase commercial buses differently.  To make this change we need to think of satellite buses as a commodity that we can buy from existing production lines and not pay for development or standing Army to maintain.  This will require changing the requirements for prompt dose nuclear hardening and having a classified production line.  Commercial buses harden to lifetime dose, which isn’t that far from prompt dose anyway.  But if we assume determined adversary can take out a satellite, in many ways, it shouldn’t matter which way. More critically, a commercial production line is not going to add prompt dose hardening capability to their buses and make them unaffordable for the majority customers.  Similarly, it is not reasonable for them to secure their production line and again drive up costs for their main line customers.  We simply must change to think of buses and potential rideshares as commodities and make the changes necessary to take advantage of these commercial capabilities.


“Those who initiate change will have a better opportunity to manage the change that is inevitable” — William Pollard

To accomplish all of this we need to a truly fundamental shift in what we are buying, how we are buying it, and how to keep the chain of command and Congress informed.  We need to move away from the big juicy monolithic systems that did everything while meeting all of its requirements in its very first system. This approach was good while there were no peer threats in Space, but with credible threats, expensive systems without become attractive targets that will result in mission degradation if lost.  Additionally, when we spend a lot of money on a major system, it needs to operate for a long time, and in that long time emerging threats could render them obsolete, with no money to replace them. We need to transition from systems that have this one big innovation at one time to something different that we can do in smaller more affordable systems. First we need to streamline the requirements process.  We need to shift from Programs of Record to Missions of Record, we need to properly align accountability and authority, we need to provide SPDs and PEO’s with useable program reserve (or risk margin to solve issues quickly), and we need to eliminate and streamline most of the headquarter oversight.

The new approach to what we buy needs to be about having a grand vision, and approaching that vision by taking smaller steps in each system we build and making each step/build a little better.

In the how we buy, we must transition to a higher risk tolerance as we move to proliferated systems, and use both Section 804 of the 2016 National Defense Authorization Act to allow “rapid prototyping and rapid fielding” of new systems using mature technologies that only require minimal development and OTA’s.  This approach moves us building systems that would launch on schedule (with schedule as a KPP), and would on-ramp new technologies as they mature rather than trying for new technology implementations and off ramping.

The key management fundamentals of accomplishing this are 1) Properly aligning authority and accountability, and 2) Providing transparency on what is going on throughout the chain of command.  Senior leadership and Congress need to be willing to delegate authority and accountability to the PEO/SPO/PM level and the SPO’s need to be willing to openly communicate status and decisions up the entire chain and to Congress.  The reality is that Congress could see far more than they ever have before, and likely will love this, if it is given a chance. But they need to have trust that it is what will happen before they are willing to transition.


“The arrogance of success is to think what you did yesterday will be sufficient for tomorrow.”
— William Pollard

The first thing we have to do is rethink and readjust how we assign and align accountability and authority to continue to be the dominant player in Space on the world stage.  This will have immediate and positive results. We must empower our PM’s/SPDs and our PEOs authority over mission capability to delivery of timely capability to the warfighter without an endless onslaught of bureaucratic decision making processes, and hold them accountable.  In the early days of Space, SPD’s had both accountability and authority.  This has morphed over the years to having accountability and no authority.  SPD’s used to have program reserve (which at a later point became risk reserve) that allowed them to fix problems as soon as they happened and not delay the decision to have it reviewed.  Having a reasonable program reserve for the SPD’s is critical to their being able to solve problems. Problems not only don’t get better with time; they generally get worse exponentially.  Doing this disrupts the current system, and the only way to solve these concerns is to allow the SPD decision making,while requiring reporting and transparency.


“The biggest risk is not taking any risk…. In a world changing really quickly, the only strategy guaranteed to fail is not taking risks.” —Mark Zuckerberg

In the early days, transparency would have been difficult to provide because it would have been manual (building a set of slides, taking them up the chain, etc.). Nowadays we have modern IT infrastructure and the ability to share information at the speed of light.  In the future, we could have all of the stakeholders have access to what is going on, the problems occurring, the decisions made and the money applied.  This obviously requires a different mindset of the people viewing this.  The danger is that this much insight into every little problem and solution would cause panic in senior leaders until they got accustomed to seeing the daily sausage making of building a satellite, but they would learn more about the process than they ever had before.

This can be a double-edged sword, if not treated properly, and I suspect there will be some growing pains when all of this information becomes available. We must make sure that the ability to access information and status helps, rather than hurts, our ability to execute.  The goal of this is to provide the ability for senior leaders to be more informed, not to insert them in the day-to-day decision making, so they will need the discipline not to call back and try to get involved every day.


“I cannot say whether things will get better if we change; what I can say is they must change if they are to get better.”  —Georg C. Lichtenberg

We need to change.  The world has changed, and our adversaries have spoken, and we will either change or we will fall behind.

We cannot yet declare victory in the challenge of changing both what we buy and how we buy it.  We need to 1) properly align accountability and authority, 2) move accountability down to the lowest levels feasible (PEO, SPD, PM), 3) institutionalize 804, OTA’s, and RCO authorities as the norm, even for Flagship and Capstone programs, 4) change policies so we can take advantage of the commercial space industry, 5) move to Missions of Record and return program reserves, and 6) most importantly we need to move from oversight to transparency.

Change is never easy, but the alternative is not a pleasant one.

Thomas “Tav” Taverney is a retired U.S. Air Force Major General and former vice commander of Air Force Space Command. He has served on SMC and Space Command advisory boards, and has supported acquisition and launch system reviews.

Retired Maj. Gen. Thomas “Tav” Taverney is chairman of the Schriever Chapter of the Air and Space Force Association and was Air Force Space Command vice commander prior to his 2006 retirement after 38 years of service.