SN Military.Space | Faster acquisitions a ‘daunting task’ for DoD; Satellite comms: What does DoD want?
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HOT TOPIC: Speed, resilience a ‘daunting task’ for Defense. Gen. John Hyten’s list of must-do space procurement reforms
Claire Leon has lived on both sides of the military space business overseeing multibillion-dollar programs. Until last December, she was the director of the launch enterprise at the Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center in Los Angeles. Before joining the government, she had a long career in the private sector, culminating as vice president of Boeing Space and Intelligence Systems.
Leon’s latest move: academia. She is now head of systems engineering graduate education at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles.
I spoke with Leon recently about military space, the role of commercial industry and the continuing problems in defense acquisition programs. I asked her about the frequent complaint these days is that DoD, NASA and the defense industry need to be more agile and build more resilient systems. “This may sound like a straightforward mandate — but given the overarching bureaucracy it is a daunting task,” Leon said. “I think the government, in general, is very accustomed to using the DoD acquisition processes that have been developed over the past 50 years.”
To sum it up: The procurement system was “designed for full coordination, not agility.”
Leon said a lot of innovation happened in the 1960s and 70s because there was a “willingness to work through failures.” Today’s programs have become so big that they “can’t fail.” The layered oversight has slowed down the ability to develop new capabilities.
What surprised her as head of the launch enterprise? “It was interesting to me how much attention launch would get from Congress,” Leon said. When you think of it, launch is just transportation. It should not be such as big deal, she said. “It’s just something you count on, like getting a bus ride to work. It was a little surprising to me that launch was one of the more contentious, visible areas.”
Leon was overseeing launch at a time when controversial things were happening, like the decision to stop using the Russian RD-180 engine in Air Force rockets, and the rise of SpaceX as a challenger to the ULA monopoly.
“What I love about the current launch industry is that it is reinvigorating the ‘wow factor’ of space,” she said. The obvious players creating the buzz are SpaceX and Blue Origin. But there are many other small companies working to enter the launch industry, and potentially capture the small lift requirements.
Leon said she is confident in the future success of the Air Force Launch Service Agreement, a program she helped start in order to find a domestic replacement for the rocket powered by the RD-180 engine. “The Air Force is absolutely working to leverage the U.S. commercial launch capabilities.”
What was Leon’s reaction to of the Falcon Heavy launch in February? “I thought it was phenomenal.”
Gen. Hyten shares a few thoughts about space procurement
Air Force Gen. John Hyten has been insistent that U.S. military space programs need to “go faster” as adversaries continue to close in on the United States. “I know it’s doable,” Hyten said in an interview during a recent visit to SpaceNews.
Priorities: Bring launch costs down under $100 million. Get to three- to five-year development timelines for satellites. Build modular spacecraft where new payloads can be integrated with existing government or commercial spacecraft buses.
What about the Space Force? Hyten said he “likes” how the conversation is moving. “I like the law Congress passed last year about what we have to do to deal with space as a warfighting domain,” he said. “I like the study they commissioned to look at what the future of space wars will be. I like the way the president talked about space as a warfighting domain. We’re going to work all those issues.”
Testifying before the Senate several days after the interview, Hyten was more direct: “I think that someday we’ll have a Space Corps or a Space Force in this country, but I don’t think the time is right for that right now.”
Satellite communications: What does DoD want?
It was an omnibus shocker: A last-minute add-on of $600 million in the Air Force budget for two high-capacity communications satellites — currently built by Boeing — that the Pentagon did not request. The omnibus appropriations bill for fiscal year 2018 funds two Wideband Global SATCOM satellites, WGS-11 and WGS-12. The Air Force did not request funding for these spacecraft nor were these satellites included in any previous marks of the congressional defense committees, or in the fiscal year 2019 budget request.
Meanwhile, there is not much clarity or consensus on how the Defense Department and the military services should go about buying satcom services from the private sector at a time when the market is offering more choices and competitive pricing than ever before.
Space communications is just one area where the Pentagon is paralyzed by indecision. This is a problem seen across most space programs, said Fred Kennedy, director of the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency’s Tactical Technology Office.
DARPA is looking to shake up the established order with a program called Blackjack that seeks to bring commercial space technologies into the military. There is a fear of change in the Pentagon that “puts us in this kind of frightening place of risk aversion,” Kennedy said in an interview with SpaceNews. “We are paralyzed by the thought of moving to a new architecture.”
With Blackjack, “we are going to go marry up with the commercial sector,” he said. Among the hot technologies are the new LEO constellations. Kennedy would like to see the military adopt some of the business ethos of the emerging space companies gearing up to manufacture hundreds or thousands of satellites and doesn’t “test, check and review everything until the cows come home,” he said. “We have to get out of that mode.”
Kennedy hopes to see the Blackjack program influence not only how the military buys services but also how it builds its own constellations. “We need to figure out how to service the warfighter directly,” Kennedy said. There has to be more “commercial leveraging.” This means the government has to sign up deals with up-and-coming satellite service providers. “If we don’t get in early, these folks are going to march off to their commercial customer requirements and we’ll never get our hooks in.”
A bit more clarity on military space budget for FY-19
Now we know for certain that the unclassified budget request for national security space is $12.5 billion.
That is what the Pentagon included in the aggregated account known as MFP-12. This is the “major force program” spending category for national security space. It is $1.1 billion higher than the MFP-12 request for fiscal year 2018. The Air Force gets the majority of the funds — $11.4 billion. The remainder is for space programs run by the Army, the Navy, the Office of the Secretary of Defense and the Defense Information Systems Agency.
MFP-12 has about 98 program elements. Aerospace industry consultant Mike Tierney of Jacques & Associates was able to identify 77 lines from publicly available budget documents.
“The lines we can’t track are mostly support in nature — operations, maintenance, training, personnel — that support the trajectory of the major domain investments,” he told SpaceNews. “They are programs listed by name and PE number that only the Air Force or DoD have the insight on how much is being invested.”
The spending lines that defense and space contractors most care about are investments. The Air Force has $8.5 billion in its space budget for research, development and procurement of new systems.
ICYMI: White House releases ‘fact sheet’ for space strategy
A new National Space Strategy announced by the White House March 23 fits into an “America First” theme of the Trump administration, seeking to protect American interests in space through revised military space approaches and commercial regulatory reform.
The strategy document itself has not been released, and an administration source says the release is intended to serve as the primary fact sheet for the strategy. The statement says the strategy is intended to outline how the administration will protect American interests in space, fitting into a broader “America First” theme of policies by the current administration.
Senate confirms four-star Global Strike commander, three-star vice commander of Space Command
The Senate last week confirmed Lt. Gen. Timothy Ray as the four-star commander of Air Force Global Strike Command. Ray was previously deputy commander of U.S. European Command. He replaces Gen. Robin Rand who is retiring. Ray is a bomber pilot who flew B-52s and B-1s. The Senate also confirmed Maj. Gen. David Thompson to be for the newly created three-star post of vice commander of Air Force Space Command, a job that will be based in the Pentagon. Thompson has been special assistant to the commander of Air Force Space Command at Peterson Air Force Base, Colorado.