Space acquisition nominee: Satellites must be defended, ‘the economy depends on space’

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The White House on Dec. 15 nominated former NRO executive Frank Calvelli to be assistant secretary of the Air Force for space acquisition and integration

WASHINGTON — Frank Calvelli, nominated by President Biden to be assistant secretary of the Air Force for space acquisition and integration, said Feb. 17 that the United States needs to move quickly to protect satellites so they can be “counted on during times of crisis and conflict.”

Calvelli spoke during a confirmation hearing held by the Senate Armed Services Committee, where he testified along with three other DoD nominees. 

If confirmed by the Senate, Calvelli will become the first-ever senior procurement executive in charge of military space programs, a post mandated by Congress in the 2020 National Defense Authorization Act.

Calvelli said it would be one of key responsibilities to help protect the military’s space assets. “There is a real sense of urgency to act,” he said. “The nation needs to outpace its adversaries and maintain the technological advantage it gets from space,” Calvelli added. 

The White House announced Calvelli’s nomination on Dec. 15. He worked for 30 years at the National Reconnaissance Office and in September joined the consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton to lead the company’s space and intelligence programs.

Calvelli would report directly to Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall. The secretary oversees the procurement executives for both the Air Force and the Space Force. Andrew Hunter was confirmed this month as the Air Force’s acquisition executive. Calvelli would be a co-equal. 

The management of space acquisitions poses significant bureaucratic challenges as Calvelli’s office will have to work with a patchwork of agencies. The Space Force has a procurement organization, the Space Systems Command, but other agencies also fund space programs, including the Air Force Research Laboratory, the Missile Defense Agency, the Space Rapid Capabilities Office and the Space Development Agency. The Space Force also works with the intelligence community, mainly the National Reconnaissance Office, on classified space programs. 

Congress and DoD created a multi-agency panel called the Space Acquisition Council to coordinate programs. Calvelli said he would “use that tool to my advantage to discuss space architecture, discuss space acquisition strategies and discuss across the services where we need to go with the space architecture.”

Commercial space

In prepared testimony, Calvelli said the rapid growth of the commercial space sector “provides a significant opportunity for the DoD to utilize innovative commercial capabilities and production processes.”

But it remains to be seen how much commercial technology can be integrated into military systems, he noted. “Each mission area must be evaluated to determine the risks involved in order to achieve the proper balance between government and commercial capabilities.”

He said the commercial sector is “at the forefront of many new technologies such as artificial intelligence, edge computing, and machine learning; technologies which will be beneficial to outpacing strategic competitors.”

Examples of commercial innovation can be seen in proliferated constellations that use smaller satellites. However, the integration of proliferated constellations being designed for missile tracking with the military’s overall missile tracking architecture “could potentially be a challenge.”

A key priority is to have “a more resilient defense space architecture,” Calvelli said. “From my experience, resiliency can be added by taking advantage of diverse orbits, adding new technical capabilities, using a mix of traditional satellites and smaller more proliferated satellites, robust space situational awareness, the ability for rapid reconstitution, and taking advantage of commercial capabilities.”

Resiliency also requires ground systems that don’t have single point failures so they are less vulnerable to cyber attacks, he added. 

Sen. Mike Rounds (R-S.D.) asked Calvelli for his views on space as a “warfighting domain.” 

Calvelli said using the term “warfighting domain or just space domain” is not the issue. “What I think is really important is that we are able to count on our space assets being there, whether that be peace, crisis or conflict,” he added. “The economy depends on space. The nation depends on space. The military depends on space. So I think we need to make sure that our architecture is resilient. And we need to make sure that we maintain a technological advantage over our near peer adversaries, particularly China and Russia.”

Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) pressed Calvelli on his views on whether the Space Force should have “offensive” space weapons. 

Calvelli’s response: “I believe we need whatever capability that we can get that’s going to protect our assets. I think that a day without space would be a really bad day for our country, whether that’s in peacetime or in crisis and conflict.”

Cotton noted that DoD is “unfortunately littered with a lot of expensive programs that have gone wrong, where the taxpayer doesn’t get what we paid for, and sometimes that’s due to immature technology, due to the leadership and management of program, every now and then it’s due to a little bit of congressional meddling and parochial politics back home.”

He asked Calvelli if he would “end programs that aren’t performing and are not delivering value for the taxpayer.” Calvelli said he would. “If there’s programs that are awry or not heading in the right direction, I have no problem either taking corrective action or terminating them.”

Calvelli’s nomination is expected to sail through the committee. During the hearing, he was praised by several senators for his NRO career and track record in space programs.