WASHINGTON — The Space Acquisition Council, which includes senior leaders from the Pentagon and the National Reconnaissance Office, has made it a priority to assist space industry suppliers that are financially stressed by the coronavirus crisis.
But exactly what type of assistance will be offered is still to be determined, said the Department of the Air Force’s top procurement official Will Roper.
Roper told reporters April 29 during a video conference that he has asked DoD organizations that work with space companies to get as much data as possible on suppliers that might be on the brink of collapse.
“When we get the results back, it’ll help us put out a unified message to Congress, to the Office of the Secretary of Defense and others about where to take actions,” Roper said.
The Pentagon has already identified small launch vehicles and microelectronics as sectors that support national security space programs and have been weakened by the crisis. Roper suspects there are other fragile points in the supply chain such as providers of specialized materials used in satellites.
“These are critical supplies,” he said. “You can’t just make a satellite out of anything, you have to have materials that meet tolerances that you just don’t get anywhere,” said Roper. “It’s not an area that you can just snap your fingers and find a company that does that type of work.”
During an emergency meeting April 27, “we reached the decision to put out a survey,” Roper said. The council also discussed “specific queries” that were sent from particular companies but Roper said he could not mention them by name.
“What we wanted to do with this emergency session is to put our thoughts on the table about what we’re seeing in the space industrial base,” he said.
Roper has seen investors become more conservative “and I think they’re looking for the government to take a leading role in saying what’s going to be important in the long term.”
Space is viewed as a “booming part of the future economy” and now needs help, said Roper. “Before COVID-19 most of the large investment firms were predicting at least a trillion dollar space economy by 2040.”
Congress might not support stimulus for DoD
Giving more money to the Pentagon to help stressed suppliers will be a hard sell, according to the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee Adam Smith (D-Wash.).
“I don’t think we should put money for DoD in a stimulus package,” Smith said April 29 during a Defense Writers Group video conference.
Smith said the Pentagon has plenty of money it can reallocate to fund industry stimulus efforts. Fuel costs, for example, have plummeted so there is extra funds in those accounts.
“Any future supplementals should be to fight the virus” not to buy military equipment, Smith said.
“I have not seen an argument that makes sense to me that we should put more money into defense to manufacture things,” he said.
With regard to helping suppliers in space or other sectors, “I don’t think DoD necessarily should turn into a bank on this one.”
Lots of businesses need help right now, said Smith. “Some have seen 100% of their revenue disappear.” A question for DoD is “how do you distribute resources? How do you make sure that it gets to the people that most desperately need it? We’re going to need to constantly reevaluate what’s working and what’s not working, and who needs the help.”