Op-ed | Remarkable pivot happening in the national security space business

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Calvelli's 'space acquisition tenets' are exactly what is needed to keep pace with threats

Over the last year, policymakers in Washington have awakened from a deep slumber. The abrupt ending of the Cold War in the 1980’s and the subsequent misguided industry consolidation in the 90’s lulled the nation into believing that the status quo was all we could really hope for. Very little innovation or improvements were envisioned or deemed necessary. Parts obsolescence was seen as the most existential threat. 

But that’s all changed. In unclassified forums and publications, the DNI has reported increasing threats to our space systems, the very same systems which our modern, 21st century economy is entirely dependent on. 

One of their subordinate agencies, the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency, declared last year that the United States is no longer the consistent gold medal winner in commercial space that it had always been. Meanwhile, the Space Force, in cooperation with the Defense Innovation Unit (DIU) in Silicon Valley, has been tracking this issue from an industrial base perspective.  Their annual report makes it clear that speed is the element that everyone recognizes is needed.  Its conclusion is that the sense of urgency is just not universally shared within the larger and deeper layers of the bureaucracy. 

Even the usually slow-moving Congress has been shouting down the Space Force for not delivering capability to space with any manner of urgency or cost consciousness. 

In the acquisition business, change also is in the air. The much-heralded Space Development Agency has been welcomed into the Space Force not only as a full-fledged member, but also as a model for their future. Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Space Acquisition and Integration Frank Calvelli already sees them as, “a model that we can take advantage of and actually push across the organization, across the other PEOs.”

Calvelli’s decision to no longer develop and buy the multi-billion-dollar satellites that have been performing the strategic missions is groundbreaking. Instead, he is directing the immediate transition from these school bus sized behemoths in geostationary orbit to smaller, dramatically less expensive systems leveraging largely off the shelf components. These are the “fat juicy targets” that then General John Hyten and others lamented about for decades but the acquisition side wouldn’t address.

That model and his decades of experience have informed Mr. Calvelli’s just announced nine tenets for space acquisition, that points to a wholesale change in how the space acquisition community must think about timely support to combat commanders. 

These nine tenets, echoing the late Ash Carter’s launch of Better Buying Power 12 years ago, are exactly what is needed to rein in a docile industry that had grown complacent after decades of guaranteed profit, no-bid contracts.  

So here are three specific actions the  Space Force needs to take to leverage the speed of the commercial space industry to ensure the U.S. wins the second space race.

Promote Declassification Mission and system declassification must be the most urgent priority, making unclassified the default position for almost all missions. This has been talked about for many years, but it never gets done. It will vastly expand the competitive landscape to commercially oriented companies, dramatically reduce program costs, and allow much quicker capacity expansion for all bidders.

Competition at the Core Fair, fast, and open competitions set up to maximize the use of off the shelf technology has to be at the core of system acquisitions. That means no more government funded development for bespoke satellite buses or launch systems.  Precious Space Force R&D must be directed towards instrument payload subsystems and ground processing software when nothing suitable is available commercially. Competitions need to be simple and fair with three simple award criteria: price, performance on orbit, and business viability (balance sheet health and past performance in similar missions).

Advisor Realignment Finally, there needs to be a realignment of all compensation bonuses and contract incentives for the government’s contracted advisors and consultants so that they are congruent with the objectives of the performing satellite contractor, which are technical performance on orbit and program schedule. That is the simplest way to prevent the intractable disease of Washington’s analysis paralysis.

The slow bureaucratic way historically favored by the Pentagon to lock in sole source contractors with predictable spending is ending, and speed is the name of the game. Contractors will be answering for their poor performance and expectations are now set for a year or two to orbit instead of decades. Affordability and accountability are once again bolstered and reemphasized, which drives costs down even further. We are finally transitioning from a complacent “good enough for government work” philosophy to a “we better do something because we’re almost out of time” reality. 

To be sure, it takes much more than some new projects to say a revolution is underway. But the buzz around D.C. is that the new space leadership is dead serious about this change because it’s the only way we can keep pace with vicious threats from our deadliest adversaries and create a space domain that is safe for future generations. 

It’s ironic and heartening that a tiny trial office hidden away in the Pentagon is pointing the way with its new boss and leading by example. But maybe that’s the way real leadership shows its face, when it is most urgently needed. 

Charles Beames is chairman of the SmallSat Alliance and executive chairman of York Space Systems, a satellite manufacturer supporting commercial and U.S. government customers.