Much has been written and discussed about the current status of national security space programs. Delays and even cancellations of major programs vital to our security are all too common. The public reporting of events surrounding the Broad Area Space-Based Imagery Collection, or BASIC, program made many question how far off the path we have wandered – first, for this to be reported in public and second that leaders could not come together to make a decision so critical for our national security. Everyone agrees that the International Traffic in Arms Regulations, or ITAR, needs a complete overhaul, but meanwhile millions of dollars are being spent by contractors to comply. Maybe we have convinced ourselves that these are intractable problems, and we are doomed to a future where we add more oversight and process to fix a burgeoning bureaucracy already overloaded with oversight and process.
These problems will not be fixed overnight, but they can be fixed – one step at a time. Voices are being raised with new approaches to acquisition within senior government circles, and hopefully they will succeed in bringing positive change. However, an element is being overlooked – changes required by contractors. At ComtechAeroAstro, we are committing ourselves to core and very basic American values – a strong work ethic and the highest standards of integrity. Additionally, there are several important responsibilities we, as contractors, have to execute in order to be successful for our nation.
Our first responsibility to the National Security Space Office is to continue to develop and present innovative system solutions that make sense. Leveraging ongoing work for various customers, we apply and modify our various solutions to new developing problems to present low-cost solutions that will enhance our current national security space capabilities. These concepts may or may not make the cut in overall budgeting drills, but we will continue to develop ideas for low-cost mission augmentation systems. Our company is not in a position to compete for the mainline national security space missions, but there is value in what we can provide, and we will continue to propose these ideas.
Second, contractors must provide realistic and achievable bids to customers when responding to requests for proposals (RFPs) or broad agency announcements. Nobody wins when contractors deliberately underbid or present unachievable success-oriented schedules for development of programs. Customers may be eager to believe these promises, and too often all is forgiven when the system is built and on-orbit, and the contractor promises to do better next time. One result of this practice is onerous RFPs requiring enormous proposals with extensive risk reduction plans, large integrated master plans (IMP), and software development plans that require significant effort to write during the proposal process but are rarely referred to again after award. At a previous company for which I worked, there was an instance where we were not selected for a critical program principally because we did not have a 50 pound (22.5 kilogram) IMP on the shelf to deliver. We had the past performance and plan to do the program but that was not good enough for the “traditional prime contractor” advising the customer. They said we could not be relied on to manage the program and gave it to a company with great plans on paper, but consistent recent failures. Just after that loss we bid on and won a similarly complex program from a customer who did look at past performance; that mission is on orbit, while the first one is still being developed and the price has doubled since the award. As contractors, we have to bid realistically; it is the only honest and ethical way to conduct business. That now has become the focus at our company – doing what we say, when we said we were going to do it, and for the cost promised.
Third, in order to be able to execute programs entrusted to us, contractors must provide strong program management and systems engineering. To run a program effectively, program managers must have the ability to see when engineers are in trouble or not on the right path; be able to sense when things are not exactly right and look deeper to find and fix problems before they grow into bigger problems; and communicate with their customer, team and management to present the important facts needed for the execution of their responsibilities. Naturally there are tools we use to help us manage large complex projects, which space systems are, but we cannot overly focus on the tools and forget the importance of the human element. My job as an executive is to evaluate my team like program managers evaluate their team, anticipate problems, and then deal with them – not to hand the problem off to someone else.
To be successful in this very difficult business, contractors have to hold people accountable for their results – from the lowest level staff member to the president and chief executive officer. We need to make sure that our people have the right skills, education and experience for their position and then hold them accountable for the results they produce. Do not misunderstand – I am not advocating that we do not take appropriate risks with programs. Depending on the program, we may agree with our customer to accept certain risks for cost or schedule benefits. I am talking about holding people accountable for completing the task they signed up for at the beginning of the program. There is no other way to succeed in any venture. At ComtechAeroAstro, I hold my general managers accountable as they hold their program managers accountable and they, in turn, hold their engineers, scientists and business professionals accountable and so on.
The next responsibility contractors have to the national security space is to be transparent with our customers. We cannot hide problems. It is our duty to be upfront with our progress in cost, schedule and technical performance and involve customer personnel in solving the problems that will inevitably occur in our difficult business. I have personally seen this strategy work very successfully. Customers appreciate forthrightness in presenting problems and solving them, rather than going to them with excuses after they occur. When the customer wants changes in a program, contractors need to let them know the full programmatic impacts of the direction – cost, schedule and technical. We need transparency for the good of the program and the nation.
Finally, contractors must work as efficiently as possible and operate with integrity in all we do. All of us want to win work and keep our jobs, of course, but we have to be honest in doing so. We have to give it our all just like the men and women in our armed forces are doing. We face unprecedented challenges in our business today with our military increasingly reliant on the technology we in national security space provide. We need to conduct every action and program, whether it is technology development or one of our mainline systems, as if our and our families’ lives depended upon it, because they will. Putting in 40 hours and forgetting it is just not acceptable in our business. It may sound trite, but it all boils down to being honest, working hard and always giving it your best no matter what you are doing. In other words, getting back to basic American values.
Paul Lithgow is president of ComtechAeroAstro.