Op-ed | Two changes Congress can make to speed space acquisition

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This op-ed originally appeared in the April 8, 2019 issue of SpaceNews magazine.

We now live in a world of accelerated technological advancement. Moore’s Law has come home to roost in the space business. Taking seven to 10 years to develop and deploy operational space systems is no longer efficient nor acceptable.

Recently, as pointed out by the U.S. Government Accountability Office, America’s adversaries have been turning technology in three to four years, while the U.S. is turning technology in seven to 10 years. For the last 25 years, we have been the unchallenged world leaders in space technology. However, if this trend continues it will not be very long until we fall behind. This has been recognized by the GAO and congressional and Air Force leadership. To respond, we must figure out how to move fast, insert technology quickly and respond to rapid technology insertion by our adversaries. Therefore, we need to increase our risk tolerance, and build systems faster and more affordably, allowing us to deploy resilient constellations that can endure losses, and still provide mission capability. To retain system agility and resilience, we cannot afford to buy and field technologically “old” systems up to a decade after program initiation.

In the past, we deployed systems very quickly. The first Defense Meteorological Satellite Program satellite was built in 10 months, but we did this with a high tolerance for risk. While we were risk tolerant, Gen. Bernard Schriever and the early military space pioneers realized that problems in high-technology, low-volume developments would occur, and therefore built in cost and schedule margin. This margin allowed rapid and efficient addressing of problems and issues as soon as they occurred.

POTENTIAL FIRST ACTION FOR CONGRESS: RE-INSTITUTE COST AND SCHEDULE MARGINS

How did we get here? It began with the confluence of a peace dividend brought about by the collapse of the USSR as a true threat. U.S. military spending was rapidly reduced between 1985 and 1993 and then remained flat through 1999.

During Operation Desert Storm, we began to see the criticality of space support. Despite budget cuts, we decided to continue development of the space systems that were underway, rather than cancel a system or two and preserve margins for the rest.

Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson, center, and Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein, to her right, testify before the Senate Armed Services strategic forces subcommittee May 17, 2017, in Washington. Credit: U.S. Air Force photo/Scott M. Ash
Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson, center, and Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein, to her right, testify before the Senate Armed Services strategic forces subcommittee May 17, 2017, in Washington. Credit: U.S. Air Force photo/Scott M. Ash

With reduced budgets, cost and schedule margins were eliminated and risk was added to programs without accounting for the consequences of problems occurring. This removal of margin and flexibility, as much as anything, was a precursor to problems that got worse with time rather than being addressed when they happened. Since risk-margin dollars were well known and well acknowledged, program reviews covered how, when, and why risk dollars were expended. However, when the peace-dividend budget reduction pressures were high, it was decided to cut the margin dollars rather than cut programs and hope for trouble-free success. When programs ran in to inevitable problems, there was no money readily available to solve the problems. And since getting more money takes time, the problems would get worse during the wait. This created an underlying budget-versus-requirement mismatch that ultimately led to most of these systems having financial and schedule problems.

The further abdication of government oversight under Total System Performance Responsibility — a 1990s-era acquisition reform that put more decisions in the hands of contractors — had a significant negative effect on the space acquisition corps for decades.

In military systems acquisition, there have been traditionally three distinctive risk areas that margin covered: cost, schedule and performance. As space has become critical to operators, we now must add operational risk. In the past, we could deploy R&D systems and upgrade them in field or simply live with what we had. We no longer have that luxury.

POTENTIAL SECOND ACTION FOR CONGRESS: MOVE FROM A PROGRAM OF RECORD TO A MISSION OF RECORD

Historically, System Program Offices (SPOs) focused on delivering the current generation of new satellites and ground segments, but also started the necessary advance work on the next-generation system. These overlapping programs had been the standard method of operating because of the long lead time and rapid technology obsolescence common to space systems. This approach assured the newest technologies were being incorporated into the systems being delivered. However, with the confluence of reduced budgets, rapid technology advancement and increased demand for space systems, we experienced significant development problems by trying to do more with less. When our development programs were in trouble in the early 2000s, we properly instituted laser-like focus as a strategy to complete these developments. This somehow morphed into the concept of Program of Record (PoR) and having that become the only focus for missions.

When the national security space enterprise tries to implement new ideas and new approaches to mission areas, it gets stalled by the inability to shift early Future Years Defense Program (FYDP) money in a reprogramming action. A year or more is often lost moving these changes through the Pentagon and White House budget process to Congress. And if the proposed changes are deemed a “New Start,” the budget process takes even longer — two to three years before any procurement actions can begin.

The Defense Acquisition University tells us that the Defense Department has no consistent definition of “Program of Record.” Arguably, the best definition is this: an acquisition program that has survived the Pentagon’s Program Objective Memorandum budget process; is recognized in a service’s documentation; and has successfully achieved Program Initiation recognized by a Milestone Decision Authority (normally at Milestone B) and is funded and documented across the FYDP. In fact, Program of Record has turned into “segment of record” in cases such as GPS, where each segment (spacecraft, ground control and user equipment) has become its own Program of Record, severely limiting the ability to do intelligent trades between the segments without onerous change reviews.

The laser-like focus and Program of Record approach, while essential to the turnaround in the development of this generation of space programs, should have had an expiration date. Its continued use presents a growing risk to the future of these critical space missions. It is time to rethink the strategy. The Program of Record has become an unstoppable force — a Christmas tree upon which we hang all our hopes and dreams and beneath which Congress places gift boxes full of money. Everybody jumps on the train because it’s a Program of Record. And then it’s taxed and cut, with minimal flexibility.

The history of the space business demonstrates that when we run into problems, we develop the appropriate policies and procedures to avoid them in the future. Although most of these policies and procedures may have been a made sense in their time, many have outlived their effectiveness. Time marches on and circumstances change. Yet once a particular set of problems have passed, we often fail to reassess the continued value of the remedy we put in place.

The problems with the removal of program margins and the declaration of Program of Record with the total focus on Program of Record and only Program of Record is that rather than building systems as an element of supporting a mission or delivering a capability it has morphed into buying a specific system for its own sake without thinking about the mission — all while doing this without the proper margin to solve problems when they occur. It significantly limits decision making and flexibility in the management of a program.

So, how do we move away from the tyranny of the current Program of Record process and the problems it entails while still retaining some of its benefits?

The concept of budget flexibility is essential to success. We must treat each capability area as a family of systems and only by moving away from Program of Record can we do that effectively.

Congress can help accelerate acquisition by re-instituting cost and schedule margins and by allowing national security space to move away from the current Program of Record construct to a similar but more flexible concept of Mission of Record. The rationale for changing to a Mission of Record with reasonable mission margins would allow flexibility, much like existed in the first 35 or 40 years of space acquisition, allowing mission areas flexibility to react to changes in the threats and to incorporate technology changes as advances occur. Additionally, we need to provide flexibility at the enterprise level among missions, not just within missions.

Clearly there is now a mandate to move quickly, and get systems from innovation to space inside of three to four years. The DoD and specifically the Air Force are taking numerous actions to move faster and be more agile in the space arena. However, there are actions that are outside of the control of the DoD and lie squarely with Congress. And, Congress is highly motivated to do what they can to help the DoD in move faster.

The Space and Missile Systems Center Remote Sensing Systems Directorate and its L3 Technologies and Millennium Space Systems industry partners successfully completed Acoustic Testing on the Space Based Infrared System Wide Field of View program optical payload in August 2018. Credit: USAF photo by Walter Talens
The Space and Missile Systems Center Remote Sensing Systems Directorate and its L3 Technologies and Millennium Space Systems industry partners successfully completed Acoustic Testing on the Space Based Infrared System Wide Field of View program optical payload in August 2018. Credit: USAF photo by Walter Talens

While senior leadership is trying to drive change, we have not yet seen any significant change in current space programs and their low tolerance of risk and robust mission assurance. But this change will come, because there is no other option. We will move to affordable, shorter life systems that are elements of resilient versus ‘prompt dose survivable’ constellations. We will use lower cost, responsive launch. We will incorporate the ability to endure losses of nodes and still continue the mission. We will leverage the commercial space industry with the use of commercial buses and even ride shares. And we will enable the ability to rapidly reconstitute systems and capabilities when necessary. To do this, we need to drive the necessary change in requirements, budget, acquisition strategy, milestone reviews and approvals, etc., to allow for this flexibility.

But the best near-term changes that could yield substantive results are the return of program margins, and the move to a Mission of Record approach. Both changes are up to Congress.

To do this, DoD must provide transparency

Transparency is how headquarters and Congress track program budgets and development status. We need a mechanism to provide immediate insight and visibility. Congress and higher headquarters must be kept informed, but they need to stay out of program execution. Ideally, the space acquisition corps would have a system like contractors use to allow everybody to see all the money all the time. With current technology, a weekly updated secure cloud program status page would provide more timely data and information than is available today.

Therefore, in addition to providing system program directors mission area flexibility, we need to also provide the program executive officer some additional overarching enterprise reserve flexibility so if a space situational awareness capability needed to protect a soon-to-launch satellite navigation system needs money, we can make that shift. All the bureaucracies we created over the last 60 years to protect the Programs of Record must change as we change from a program focus to a mission focus.

While these are critical steps in rethinking and remaking the acquisition process to be fast enough and agile enough to counter the speed of Russia and China, they must be matched by similar changes in the Joint Capabilities Integration and Development System and Milestone Decision Authority (MDA) processes (such as new start notification procedures moving Joint Requirements Oversight Council requirements to a mission level versus a program level, aligning accountability and authority, etc.). We must also assure that we continue transparency with these changes and therefore within all this flexibility there should be some level of oversight and information exchange — just not onerous oversight. We must provide sufficient insight to ensure senior leadership knows what decisions are being made: System Program Director (SPD) to Program Executive Officer (PEO) for a defined set of decisions and SPD/PEO to MDA on another set of defined decisions. These would be defined annually in a SPD letter from the PEO, much like industry provides to PMs. And, while SPDs and PEOs are exercising their flexibility, senior leaders will be informed.

Congress is fully supportive of change, and is clearly highly motivated to help assure we can respond to the current threats in space. If we can provide lawmakers the information necessary to fill their oversight role, especially if we can use modern information technology to make it better and more timely, I am confident these are initiatives that would receive support.


Tom “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.