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HOT TOPICS: Air Force space acquisitions: Real change or business as usual? • NDAA provisions set stage for another round of debate on space reorganization

THE U.S. AIR FORCE has rolled out a string of reforms and policies to speed up the modernization of space systems. It designated the follow-on to the SBIRS missile warning constellation — known as next-generation overhead persistent infrared, or OPIR — as the “pacesetting” program that will guide future efforts.

I checked in with former Air Force acquisition executive William LaPlante for his take on the Air Force’s efforts so far. LaPlante is senior vice president and general manager of Mitre Corporation’s National Security Sector.

In programs like next-gen OPIR, LaPlante sees the Air Force taking full advantage of recent legislation that gives DoD more freedom to quickly develop prototypes. “They have been pushing section 804 authorities,” said LaPlante, referring to a provision in the 2016 National Defense Authorization Act giving the services permission to waive the onerous requirements process for systems that need to be fielded in three to five years. “You can do things like sole source and move quickly to an operational prototype.”

That is exactly how the Air Force is developing next-gen OPIR. It sole sourced the constellation to Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman (for the geostationary and polar orbit satellites, respectively).

RISKS OF SOLE SOURCING Non-competitive contracts can really expedite things, but what does that do to the market? Doesn’t the Pentagon want fresh blood in the industrial base?

“It’s complicated,” said LaPlante. There are huge benefits to sole sourcing, and it’s a common practice in the intelligence community, he said. There is more stability and projects do move faster. But it comes with risks as well. When Lockheed Martin was having trouble developing GPS 3 satellites, the Air Force got concerned. “We asked: Do we have a choice?” When a single supplier dominates the market, not having an alternative is an issue.

In the OPIR program, the Air Force should make sure there are multiple sub-tier suppliers. “A place to watch is subcontractors,” said LaPlante. ‘That’s where the industrial base needs to be looked at very hard.”

Another piece of the reform puzzle is the reorganization of the Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center, which oversees the majority of space programs. Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson announced last month that SMC will be restructured so programs are managed horizontally and coordinated across the portfolio.

LaPlante recently visited SMC for a meeting of the congressionally mandated “809 panel” that will recommend DoD-wide procurement reforms. LaPlante is a member of the panel.

CULTURE CHANGES TAKE YEARS SMC is making a major effort to accelerate programs, “but this is a big culture change for them,” said LaPlante. “They’ve grown up around the mission assurance culture” where failure is not acceptable. SMC 2.0 recognizes that “we’re in a different area. We need speed, agility, new players. … I don’t think anyone should underestimate the challenge. You have a workforce training issue; there are a lot of new things for them,” LaPlante added. “It’s going to take a few years, not a few months.” SMC leaders realize the space domain is “one where the U.S. really has its work cut out for [it]. It’s a domain where we have a race with peer competitors.”

THE HOUSE ARMED SERVICES COMMITTEE made a strong statement about national security space in its version of the Fiscal Year 2019 National Defense Authorization Act. The bill sets the stage for a new round of debate on how to organize the military to fight in space.

The committee overwhelmingly approved its strategic forces subcommittee’s recommendations on military space reform. One recommendation is to establish a subordinate unified Space Command under U.S. Strategic Command. Another provision calls for the secretary of the Air Force to establish a new numbered Air Force dedicated to space warfighting. The bill also directs the deputy secretary of defense to develop a plan to establish a separate acquisition system for military space vehicles, ground systems and terminals.

STRATEGIC FORCES SUBCOMMITTEE Chairman Mike Rogers (R-Ala.) said he and top Democrat Jim Cooper (Tenn.) “remain committed to laying the foundation” for a future space force. Creating a new numbered air force for space would increase the ranks of space warfighters. A subordinate unified command will further normalize space warfighting operations within the department, they said.

Unlike last year’s bill, this one does not mandate the establishment of a separate Space Corps in the U.S. military. That proposal is on hold pending the completion of an independent study mandated in the 2018 NDAA.

The only obstacle in this year’s push to reorganize space was an amendment introduced by Tactical Air and Land Forces Subcommittee Chairman Mike Turner (R-Ohio) to delay the creation of a sub-unified space command until after the Pentagon submits the independent study.

DISA’S FATE STILL UNCERTAIN Committee Chairman Mac Thornberry (R-Texas) has been doggedly pursuing efficiencies in Pentagon spending, notably in back office support and administrative agencies. He has proposed the elimination of the Defense Information Systems Agency and the Washington Headquarters Service. During the HASC markup last week, Rep. Anthony Brown (D-Md.) introduced an amendment to prevent DISA from being closed down until the Pentagon studies the implications.

The amendment did not pass. Thornberry said he views as the responsibility of his committee to recommend cuts in areas where there is excess or duplicative spending. He noted that DISA’s budget is up 13 percent. But Thornberry’s proposal to shut down the Test Resource Management Center was voted down.

NGA’S ‘TRIPLE A’ STRATEGY Data is flowing at unprecedented volumes from government and commercial sensors. There will be more constellations of remote sensing satellites and swarms of spy drones in the future piping in even more data. “We must adapt rapidly,” said Justin Poole, the deputy director of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency.

NGA’s answer is what the agency calls its “triple A” strategy: automation, augmentation, AI. “We intend to apply triple A by the end of this year to every image we ingest,” said Poole. It will be a massive undertaking. Just over the past year, NGA ingested more than 12 million images and generated more than 50 million indexed observations.


MAXAR CEO TALKS GEO MARKET The unusually low order rate among the world’s telecom satellite operators for geostationary satellites appears to have stabilized at about half the historic norm, according to Maxar Technologies CEO Howard Lance.

FALCON 9 BLOCK 5 UPGRADES SpaceX CEO Elon Musk said Block 5 Falcon 9 is around twice as powerful as the Falcon 9 that first launched a demonstration resupply mission for NASA in 2010. The Merlin engines on that first version had 95,000 pounds of thrust for each first-stage engine and 92,500 pounds of thrust for the second-stage engine.

VULCAN ENGINE SELECTION United Launch Alliance has selected Aerojet Rocketdyne’s RL10 engine to power the upper stage of its next-generation Vulcan rocket. ULA meanwhile has yet to choose an engine for the rocket’s first stage. That competition again pits Aerojet Rocketdyne, with its AR1 engine, against Blue Origin and its BE-4.

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Sandra Erwin writes about military space programs, policy, technology and the industry that supports this sector. She has covered the military, the Pentagon, Congress and the defense industry for nearly two decades as editor of NDIA’s National Defense...