Op-ed | The Space Development Agency must be a constructive disruptor

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SDA must be allowed to operate outside of legacy acquisition systems until it has had time to innovate, flourish and deliver.

With new plans afoot in both civil and military space, it is an exciting time for those in the U.S. space enterprise.

But while we are pleased with these trends, we urge a sober assessment by those who see space as the next domain of human competition. The establishment of the Space Force as the sixth branch of the U.S. military does not mean that we have “arrived.” Rather, we are at the beginning of the beginning. Creating a new military service just rearranges the players on the field; new players and new plays are also needed.

Space development has historically been both costly and time consuming. A single large Defense Department satellite can easily require billions of dollars and well over a decade to develop and deploy. No matter how critically our way of war, and our ability to deter, depend upon our ability to provide warfighting capabilities from space, such expenditures are difficult to justify in comparison with other equally crucial national security needs.

If we are to have the Space Force we need, the Department of Defense must bring our nation’s enterprising spirit to space development and acquisition — not at the cost and on the time scales we see today, but affordably and ahead of the threat.

Secretary of Defense Mark Esper, speaking at a recent event at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said “dominance in space will require a whole-of-government approach to maintain U.S. technological superiority and leadership. This means we must out-compete, out-innovate, and out-hustle everyone else.”

To answer that call, the Department established the Space Development Agency (SDA) to operate apart from the current space organizations.

As a clean-slate organization, SDA’s mission is not to defend existing “product lines” but to disrupt them. Unencumbered by the culture and processes of existing research, development and acquisition organizations, SDA is designed to deliver warfighting capabilities to all of the military services. In this context, it should be noted that the Army is the largest user of space, and Navy is the second largest.

The Department has enjoyed considerable success in the past with similar models. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) was established not to respond to stated requirements, but rather to develop technologies to solve problems that the standard process can’t address.

Just as many of today’s critical technologies and systems — such as GPS, unmanned aerial reconnaissance, stealth aircraft — were initially rejected by the established military services, SDA is charged with delivering new capability via novel architectures that are not yet embraced by all.

As a disruptor, SDA must be allowed to operate outside of legacy acquisition systems until it has had time to innovate, flourish and deliver. SDA will be the pilot program to show how we can incorporate new systems into our national security space enterprise through rapid and frequent delivery of updates and upgrades.

This new model will be the key that unlocks American ingenuity to provide the warfighters of today and tomorrow with the national security space dominance they must have.

 

Derek Tournear is the first director of the Space Development Agency. He was previously program manager at DARPA and senior program manager at the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity. Mike Griffin is  undersecretary of defense for research and engineering and the Defense Department’s chief technology officer. He is a former NASA administrator and space department head at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory. Lisa Porter is the deputy undersecretary of defense for research and engineering. Previously she was the first director of IARPA and associate administrator at NASA’s aeronautics research mission directorate.