years ago the first generation, near real-time reconnaissance satellite system was authorized and a little more than five
years later it launched! While there were birthing pains, it and its successors served the nation well for 30
years and still counting.
Fast forward to the present; the satellite acquisition program landscape is littered in billion dollar plus-overruns, nearly decade-long development schedules and an industrial base and acquisition management system that routinely fails to deliver on commitments. As a former satellite geek with the highest respect for the contract and government personnel and institutions involved in these pursuits I offer the following top 10
observations on why program failures like Future Imagery Architecture (FIA), Space Based Infrared System and some more in the making exist:
No. 1: Competition is a dangerous game.
Where else but space acquisition can a contactor write a slick proposal, commit to give the customer what they want, lack the past experience and knowledge to deliver and have their costs covered to learn and inefficiently produce the system? And where else can
a customer ignore tens of billions of dollars of prior investment in a mission area “believing” that the new kid on the block can overcome these prior investments and deliver even more capability at a lower cost than the legacy team? Competition – you just have to love it!
No. 2: It’s the economics, stupid.
The most fiscally efficient programs are those in which you complete development, build several of the design and evolve new capability into periodic block changes staying with the same government/industry team. Examples include
the Defense Support Program, Defense Satellite Communication System, the
predecessors of the FIA, etc. This
leverages the power of amortization lowering unit cost and significantly reduces learning risk and attendant overruns. This is the exception today rather than the norm.
No. 3: Goldwater-Nichols reform and space acquisition is an oxymoron.
Does anyone really believe we would have today’s superb Global Positioning System
or an overhead satellite reconnaissance system if the operators
were in charge? No way – they wouldn’t have been able to articulate the need, and certainly wouldn’t have prioritized it or funded it over the day-to-day needs of the operational commands. Finally the operators are ill-equipped to manage the technical requirements process needed to acquire a modern-day satellite system.
No. 4: The program manager function has been seriously wounded.
Time is money in satellite acquisition programs, Murphy’s Law does apply, and issue resolution requires timely decisions to keep competing demands of schedule, cost and capability in balance. These are not committee or panel or “Mother, may I” circumstances but the realm of an accountable capable program manager. They don’t exist today at any level in the space acquisition chain and it has nothing to do with the capabilities of the involved individuals.
It is the assignment of the responsibility without the authority to make the call and have it stick.
No. 5: It’s about the quality, not the quantity of system engineering.
Good system engineering is grounded in a repeatable and comprehensive process
staffed by competent people.
It is a critical and difficult assignment that requires a degree of independence and first among equals relative to the product segments. Few programs being acquired today have or understand the process required – never mind the implementation – and the deficiency has little to do with number of systems personnel available.
No. 6: Congressional interfaces.
Let’s face it congressional appropriation and authorization staff have significant leverage over acquisition program efficiency. Too many line items, reprogramming timelines, funding instability, breaks in production schedules, etc., contribute to the situation. Acquisition leadership is challenged to fundamentally change this interface or learn to make the current interface work for them and that will require an up close and personal approach with congressional staff that doesn’t exist today
Go back and read No. 1 through No. 6 again
and understand they all work together to create the situation we face today in National Security Space Acquisition.
Al Smith is a retired senior Lockheed Martin executive who also worked at the National Reconnaissance Office.