It is no secret that space acquisition is in trouble. The unwillingness of Congress to fund key programs is a vote of no confidence in the current acquisition approach. The aspirations of the U.S. acquisition system have been greater than the realities of the performance of the procurement system, the plausible technical capabilities of that system or an ability to leverage other elements of defense transformation and civilian space.

The heart of the problem has been the notion of spiral development. By itself, the concept has its plausibility. But, in reality, requirements creep in the development stage has kept more satellites on the ground than have been launched. Spiral development has become, in practice, synonymous with the structural incapacity to launch sufficient or adequate capability at a reasonable price. The quest for breakthroughs in the development cycle has made it difficult to finish production and to launch sequentially upgraded satellites.

A related problem has been projecting technical possibilities that are simply unrealistic within current production schedules. Many new systems face formidable maturation barriers. Some have been framed as multifunctional replacements for extant capabilities ( Space Based Infrared System High) or as placing terrestrial capabilities in the sky (transformational communications) or moving air-breathing capabilities to space (space-based radar).

Spiral development needs to be replaced by a cookie-cutter production approach with a more realistic view of what is technically possible. Transformation rests on the notion of synergy from deployed capabilities, not the development of silver-bullet space platforms that by themselves create synergy. The network creates the synergy not the breakthrough platform.

Based on this principle, current capabilities would be modernized by a steady approach, not a breakthrough approach. Core capacities for space would be built around modular space platforms, which would be produced to be launched on a regular cycle. A basic electronics package would be prepared for the first module and be iteratively deployed. Development of a new package would occur in parallel but would not be deployed until it was mature enough not to delay the production cycle. The bias of the acquisition system would be towards deployment with as simple a system as possible on a regular deployment schedule, which would make costs predictable. Contractors would be paid largely for deployment, not prolonged development.

Two models might be considered as relevant to the cookie-cutter approach. One approach would be to craft a network of simple satellites, which would be upgraded as needed (Iridium). An additional approach might be that pursued by Lockheed Martin for the single satellite solution used by the A2100 satellite. The company standardized on the bus and developed a modular approach and incremental improvement process. These production models for networks or single satellites would be considered as the norm to be sought, rather than the Space Based Infrared System model.

Extant capabilities would be maintained; multifunctional replacements would be sought via experimental R&D programs. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) would be put in charge of funding and developing such programs. When ready, they would be moved to consideration for production.

The Predator model would be followed in space acquisition. Clearly, the small satellite, small launcher programs being pursued by DARPA are part of the solution, but re shaping the process of developing new capabilities is at the core of the challenges facing the United States.

Requirements creep keeping satellites on the ground has affected U.S. launch requirements as well. Without a clear and consistent satellite manifest for the United States , it is impossible to evaluate the real needs of the U.S. government for dedicated launchers. With the adoption of the cookie-cutter production model, realistic launch demand could be forecasted, budgeted and prepared for.

Much of the pressure on U.S. military space requirements has been reduced by the technical successes of the air-breathing sector of the transformation effort. And these successes can allow more time to develop breakthrough programs like space-based radar and transformational communications. The emergence of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) has become a key challenger to the proliferation of space-based assets. Obviously, space is a crucial domain for C4ISR (command, control, communications, computer, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance), but UAVs are emerging as crucial components of the C4ISR “infosphere.” Also, the new joint strike fighters will become multi mission aircraft strengthening the networks available to the ground forces.

Space as the high ground will become less of a thick network backbone on the Internet model, and more of the top end to the ground-, sea- and air-based networks.

As space becomes the top end, the cookie-cutter model becomes even more possible. By replicating current capabilities with an iterative approach, transformation emerges from the ability to leverage other elements of the military and commercial networks available to the United States.

In addition to the thickening of the middle level of the network via UAVs and the joint strike fighter , the growth in the capabilities of the global satellite communications networks allows the United States the opportunity to acquire core capabilities from leveraging the commercial marketplace.

The Katrina crisis underscored how important satellite communications are for crisis management and security. Without Iridium and Globalstar systems, connectivity would have been lost in the region during the height of the crisis. Yet the Pentagon’s proclivity for nurturing its own protocols and systems has led to its desire to have a transformational communications system whereby data and voice can be managed over secure systems that only it controls. No one would argue against the need for key assets to provide for secure communications; but these systems already exist and work. They could be reinforced by an evolutionary acquisition strategy. The military and the U.S. government could then be in a position to support Globalstar and Iridium type systems for global use as a course of policy, not an accident of policy.

In short, the U.S. government is at a turning point. It can continue to pursue acquisition policies that will reduce deployed capability via a spiral requirements-creep development process. The alternative is to take a network approach. A cookie-cutter modular production approach for space-based elements of the defense and homeland security networks would be pursued. These modules would be part of the defense and commercial networks and be upgraded via a fixed production system. If confidence cannot be restored in current space-based acquisition, there will be little tolerance from the Congress for funding “breakthrough” developments. After all a “breakthrough development” pursued via a broken acquisition system is more of a breakdown than a breakthrough.

Robbin Laird is a Washington- and Paris-based defense and aerospace consultant.