Alden V. Munson
Deputy Director, National Intelligence for Acquisition
Acquisition reform has become a four-letter word in some circles, particularly in national security space, where it is equated with an abdication of government oversight during the 1990s that led to severe problems – and outright failure in at least one case – on billion-dollar satellite programs.
But to Alden Munson, the top acquisition official in the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI), acquisition reform means something different; he uses the term to refer to the more aggressive program oversight and focus on technical risk reduction that he has encouraged since being the first to take the restructured job in April 2007.
Munson also is skeptical of the notion – held as gospel by some – that competition is the best way to ensure that the government gets the most value for its money. In some cases, he says, there simply are not two viable competitors for the job, and cultivating a challenger is both expensive and risky.
Munson, who in 2000 was honored by the U.S. National Reconnaissance Office as a space pioneer for work performed while at the Aerospace Corp. and the former TRW, recently spoke with Space News correspondent Jeremy Singer.
Doesn’t competition ensure the intelligence community gets the best value for its investment?
If you don’t have a competitive situation, don’t mislead yourself about the potential for disaster when you run a competition between a company that is a domain-qualified supplier, and one that isn’t. The nondomain-qualified supplier doesn’t know what they don’t know, so it can be easy to low-ball convincingly with an irresponsibly low bid. We don’t always have the ability to figure that out.
That got worse in the 1990s, when we discouraged active participation and oversight from those who had traditionally handled that function; people retired and we didn’t train the next generation.
Have you canceled any planned competitions in favor of pursuing sole-source procurements?
I can’t think of a major procurement where that’s the case, but we’ve had this discussion with the agencies, and some of them may have made slightly different decisions on their own knowing they won’t face stiff headwind from the ODNI regarding pursing a sole-source procurement.
I’ve encouraged them to be unsentimental if they don’t have competitive situations. If they don’t have it, I’m more than open to a sole-source justification.
We and the Pentagon’s acquisition department don’t see completely eye to eye on this. It’s not like we’re having a cat fight, but they’re used to longer production runs on programs like aircraft, and their competitions may not so much be for the initial entry but the cost of building 180 F-22s. In the intelligence community, we’re used to the research and development being a fairly substantial part of the program cost, and we hardly ever build two of the same thing.
What is the status of the Future Imagery Architecture (FIA) program?
We still haven’t recovered from the FIA disaster yet. We took emergency action to restart a production line but are still struggling with the path for the future. The work that was awarded to Lockheed Martin is going well, but that was a near-term palliative. What comes after is still to be determined.
The work that has remained at Boeing has been problematic. I think we have it under control at this point, but the problems have been further evidence that the team wasn’t qualified to do that job, and it’s taken them an awfully long time to climb the domain-knowledge hill.
The Air Force’s approach on the Transformational Satellite (T-Sat) Communications System has been to spend large sums of money on technical risk reduction prior to the prime contract award. Is this an appropriate model for intelligence programs?
It may make sense on some classes of space programs. In the case of T-Sat, it didn’t hurt because with the other new satellite communications systems coming on line over the course of the next several years, you could afford to spend some extra time on it. If you have a crying intelligence need, spending several years trying to get two different prototypes might not be a risk you would want to take.
The was the perfect adversary for us in the past. They were good – worthy of our best endeavors – but they moved slowly and once they fielded something, they used it in the field forever, so even when we plodded, we were able to compete. With the commercial technology that is available today and on the horizon, we’re working against ‘s Law rather than the glacial pace like when we were opposing the Soviet Union
When we talk to Congress and others, we’re often encouraged to focus on using technology that is already mature to reduce risk. If you go back in history to when John F. Kennedy committed us to go to the Moon, how many of the necessary technologies were at high readiness levels? None. But they invested in the necessary technologies and had alternatives for those with the highest risk. They recognized technology that was key, and invested aggressively to drive maturity. When we’ve needed a technology breakthrough in recent years, we haven’t done that.
Would an effort similar to what the Pentagon’s Operationally Responsive Space Office is currently experimenting with help the United States better keep pace with potential adversaries and the march of technology?
The operationally responsive space satellites are very modest initiatives. It’s not to say they’re not useful, or that we wouldn’t use some of those systems.
However, if you look at the scope of the programs we’re flying and compare the capabilities that are available on those intelligence satellites with the very modest capabilities that people talk about with operationally responsive space, it wouldn’t be realistic to offset the needs for any of our major platforms with those satellites.
We have things that can bring a tear to your eye, but you can’t put them in a five-gallon can and launch them.
What else can you do to keep pace?
It can go back to what I was saying earlier about the competitions. If you have a marketplace with qualified suppliers, they’re not just building one generation of a system and sitting around fat, dumb and happy. They may be funded by their customers to do future-looking research, or they may be more secure in the market so they feel more comfortable making some of those financial commitments themselves. An incumbent may not be 10 years away from a new capability like a challenger who doesn’t have the benefit of that legacy.
In the wake of the Space Radar cancellation, the Pentagon is studying the possibility of buying radar satellites based on technology that recently has become available commercially and internationally. Would you consider joining such an effort?
The Space Radar program was a joint effort. There are some who are suggesting that the Pentagon could pull back from the joint program. They may decide they don’t have requirements for exquisite resolution, and may pursue a more modest capability to serve the needs of the military, in which case the intelligence community would work separately. We’re prepared to do that.
If the Defense Department goes its own way, the intelligence community is reasonably comfortable with its own positioning. If they want to join us, we need to get cracking.
We don’t have any current needs for anything extraordinary at this point. I think within the past year, we have declassified the fact that we operate radar in space, so it’s a reasonable conclusion that we have capability, that we’re thinking of what to do next, and that we’re comfortable with those plans.
Other than FIA, what concerns you these days?
I’m worried that the budget will flatten out, regardless of who becomes president. I fear that there can be a tendency to butter- spread budget cuts and damage all of our programs. We should instead make the difficult decisions on which programs we do and don’t want, and properly fund the highest priorities. Those are very hard choices to make, and our government isn’t very good at it. Those decisions aren’t fun, you don’t make any friends, and you wind up off everyone’s Christmas card list.
I can’t comment at this time on what the priorities may be. We’re putting in place a rigorous process to do a systematic evaluation with the satellite programs, starting with the national intelligence priorities and looking at the productivity and value of intelligence from various assets, and will make some qualified systematic tradeoffs against elements of our capabilities if we’re forced to make cuts.
We need to find the places to make the biggest cuts with the least amount of pain. It might mean giving up on one type of satellite or collector that was optimized for a particular mission and staff the needs for the mission with remaining assets or other less expensive mechanisms. It could lead to more use of things like commercial imagery.