Pentagon space agency poised to ignite turf wars


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SN Military.Space Sandra Erwin

The Pentagon is moving forward with plans to create a Space Force as a new military branch. Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan said the Space Force will be small in size and its advantage will come in the form of cutting-edge technology.

Shanahan also has concluded that the existing DoD bureaucracies are not equipped to deliver next-generation space technologies quickly enough. He has directed the establishment of a Space Development Agency that would report directly to Undersecretary of Defense for Research and Engineering Mike Griffin. Many details are still being worked out about the SDA, but Shanahan said in a memo that he wants it set up by March 29.

WHAT ABOUT THE RCO? The U.S. Air Force, meanwhile, has spun up the Space Rapid Capabilities Office at Kirtland Air Force Base in Albuquerque, New Mexico, to take the lead in critical space programs — mostly classified — to ensure U.S. dominance in space.

Air Force Space Command leaders met with Air Force officials at the Pentagon last week to discuss the way ahead for the Space RCO — an office that used to be known as Operationally Responsive Space and was renamed per congressional mandate. The RCO charter was signed Nov. 1, 2018. While the ORS office was subordinate to the Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center, the RCO reports directly to the Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Acquisition. The thinking on the RCO, much like the thinking about SDA, is that it will have a different culture, structure and authorities than traditional DoD procurement organizations.

Congress allocated $371 million in 2019 for the Space RCO. Its projects include small satellites and it is working with DARPA’s Blackjack program to deploy a proliferated constellation in low Earth orbit and demonstrate a mesh network.

John Rood, undersecretary of defense for policy, testifies before the House Armed Services Committee in March. Credit: Department of Defense
John Rood, undersecretary of defense for policy, testifies before the House Armed Services Committee in March. Credit: Department of Defense

MISSION OVERLAP? One of the questions raised by SDA critics (mostly in the Air Force) is why create a new agency when there are other organizations in DoD — the Space RCO being one of them — that already develop space technologies. Proponents of the SDA don’t buy that argument, they insist that challenges in space demand drastic change. “One of the interesting things about space is the importance of the speed of development,” Undersecretary of Defense for Policy John Rood said recently. “Space is not manpower intensive, it’s a tech-intensive domain. The capability of the Space Force is heavily dependent on how quickly and cost effectively you can put capabilities in space.”

SPACE INDUSTRY WATCHING “I think the SDA has great potential,” commented Rebecca Cowen-Hirsch, senior vice president for government strategy and policy at Inmarsat. But there is a danger that the SDA could quickly become another DoD bureaucracy that builds Battlestar Galacticas, she cautioned. The private sector would like to see the agency focus on “developing new and different business relationships” with commercial companies and removing barriers that impede companies’ access to the military market. There is also a risk that SDA could end up competing with what industry is already doing and with what other organizations in DoD are doing, said Cowen-Hirsch. “I think this one bears watching.”

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