On April 1, I will retire after more than 37 years of active duty service. Over that time U.S. space capabilities have become integral to our economic livelihood and central to our defense structure. As warfighters, we in the military rely increasingly on space to provide a critical asymmetric advantage for U.S. and allied forces. Fundamental to delivering this advantage is a space acquisition system that consistently delivers the world’s most effective and reliable space systems.
Contrary to what some would like us to believe, space acquisition is not derailed. It is true our failed acquisition strategy and manning policies of the 1990s did get us off track. The result: Our major programs developed in the 1990s had multiple congenital defects. We were wrong to think we could take shortcuts to success and are now suffering the consequences. For good reason, the entire space enterprise has come under careful scrutiny and sharp criticism.
Addressing the acquisition challenges is critically important to the joint warfighter, and we in Air Force Space Command are committed to doing our part to ensure robust space capabilities are brought to the fight. Our goal is to become the model of acquisition excellence, Defense Department-wide — and we are going to succeed. Our 40,000 space and missile professionals throughout Air Force Space Command are working harder than ever to restore the credibility pioneers like Gen. “Bennie” Schriever established. Our focus is on developing our people, refining our processes, and strengthening our partnerships through integration across industry and, most importantly, the joint warfighting community. We call this strategy our “3 Ps to Success.”
Our acquisition team, led by Air Force Lt. Gen. Mike Hamel, is poised to deliver on this strategy. Space professionals are the building blocks of our success. We have already stabilized the acquisition team by mandating four-year controlled tours and have reorganized the Space and Missile Systems Center. Winning this battle will also require us to break down existing stovepipes by horizontally integrating across the National Security Space enterprise.
We are emphasizing lean, transparent processes with solid business ethics and a clear recognition integrity must always come first. A healthy relationship with industry is another essential ingredient. Towards this goal, we understand the need for honest dialogue on cost and for establishing realistic expectations of untested technology.
As we’ve taken on this challenge, we recognize there is no substitute for mission success and nothing is more costly than mission failure. We witnessed this first-hand back in the 1990s when a good part of $11 billion in space assets literally went up in smoke following successive launch failures. Due to the hard work of our space warriors, today we sit at 43 consecutive successful launches. If you consider the historical launch failure rate is 1 in 10, then our launch team’s tremendous efforts have translated directly into a $3 billion to $4 billion cost savings for the taxpayer.
Let’s discuss the status of our space programs. We have the healthiest Defense Support Program constellation in history. Our Satellite Communication capabilities are an indispensable ingredient to successful joint warfighting. The Global Positioning System (GPS) continues to set the world-wide standard. Simply stated, I would put GPS up against any system.
Our investment in weather forecasting capabilities paid dividends as we braced for the awesome destruction of Hurricane Katrina — mother nature’s version of a weapon of mass destruction. The loss of life we witnessed would only have been the tip of the iceberg if not for the early warning provided from space. Finally, satellite after satellite continues to outlive its expected design life, which cannot be attributed to good luck. It is a direct result of the hard work and long hours our “Space Team” — scientists, engineers, operators, maintainers, active duty, guard, reserve, civilian, contractor and industry — has put in.
Presently, we stand at a crossroads in our recovery efforts. We are not yet up to full speed, but we are making progress. The DoD, industry and Congress all falsely believed the reforms of the 1990s would save money and enable us to better acquire world-class systems. There is no use in looking back though. Instead, we do need to “get over it.” As we move further into the second half century of space, it will be vital to incorporate the lessons learned from our many hard fought battles, but not be paralyzed by past mistakes. Slowly, we are restoring credibility in our acquisition processes. The challenge for space professionals across all the military services will be to maintain the patience to see these reforms through to the end.
More than 45 years ago, the developers of our nation’s first photo reconnaissance satellite, Corona, demonstrated the kind of persistence necessary to fielding leading-edge and ultimately strategically decisive space capabilities in the face of technical and budgetary challenges. They did not back down, even after the first 12 satellites were destroyed during launch or failed in orbit.
Success didn’t happen until the 13th launch! Imagine where we would be today if they had quit after the first failure, or the fifth or twelfth? In the coming months and years, we will begin to see small achievements build momentum towards greater acquisition successes and accomplishments. As I depart Air Force Space Command, there is no doubt in my military mind that space acquisition will become the model for the DoD. That is what we are working towards every day. It is time for all of us to get on board and devote our full energy to achieving mission success — not for our benefit, but for the joint warfighters whose lives depend on it.
Gen. Lance W. Lord is the commander of Air Force Space Command.