Space Development Agency draws strong objections from California lawmakers

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Signed by Rep. Ken Calvert, a Republican, and Rep. Ted Lieu, a Democrat, the April 16 letter questions DoD's decision to shift missions away from the Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center, based in Los Angeles.

WASHINGTON — In a letter to Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan, California lawmakers question his decision to establish a Space Development Agency to take over the design of the military’s future space systems.

Signed by Rep. Ken Calvert, a Republican, and Rep. Ted Lieu, a Democrat, the April 16 letter raises “strong objections” to SDA taking missions away from the Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center, based in Los Angeles.

Copies of the letter were sent to Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein, House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith (D-Wash.), HASC Ranking Member Mac Thornberry (R-Texas) and House Appropriations Defense Subcommittee Chairman Pete Visclosky (D-Ind.). A copy of the letter was obtained by SpaceNews.

Shanahan is a staunch proponent of the SDA and has made the new agency one of his signature efforts since he took charge of DoD’s space reorganization in late 2017 when has was deputy secretary of defense. Shanahan has been insistent that a separate space agency is needed to bring a central focus to the development of space systems that are being pursued by multiple organizations and not coordinated across DoD. The SDA was empowered with special authorities to slash bureaucratic red tape and procure satellites and other technologies from commercial vendors using simpler contracting methods than traditional DoD programs. SDA’s first project will be a low Earth orbit constellation to demonstrate faster and cheaper ways to produce military space systems.

The creation of the SDA did not require congressional approval. Shanahan established the agency on March 12 under the office of Undersecretary of Defense for Research and Engineering Mike Griffin and named Fred Kennedy, the former director of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s Tactical Technology Office, as the SDA’s first director.

Calvert and Lieu ask Shanahan for an explanation of how the SDA “will fit in with our existing space structure,” the letter says. “Specifically, it is unclear how the SDA as proposed will impact the role of SMC.” They argue that SDA “risks creating duplicative layers of bureaucracy while undermining the existing organizations with a proven track record.”

These concerns echo those expressed by the New Mexico delegation in a March 18 letter to Shanahan. California and New Mexico have the largest concentration of Air Force space-focused research, development and procurement agencies.

The California lawmakers specifically challenge Shanahan to define the role of the SDA vis-a-vis SMC, a 65-year-old organization that employs 6,000 people. Shanahan, Griffin and Kennedy all maintain that the SDA is not intended to replace SMC. Griffin told reporters last month that the new agency would be taking over the development of new systems whereas SMC would continue to manage legacy programs. The implication is that, over time, the relevance of SMC would be diminished.

“We urge you to modify SDA so that we build upon SMC rather than undermine it,” Calvert and Lieu write. They point out that SMC is responsible for 85% of the military space procurement budget and that the reliability of military space launch and national security payloads “would not be possible without the work of the Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center.”

With the United States facing tougher competition in space, “we don’t have the luxury or time to create an entirely new structure when one already exists that has done the job extremely well,” says the letter. The lawmakers call on Shanahan to “build on SMC’s track record” while still holding the organization accountable for “necessary reforms to more rapidly field capabilities.”

The idea that SDA will have special authorities to accelerate programs has been a sore subject in the Air Force space community. Griffin and Kennedy have argued that the culture at SMC is too risk-averse. Government and industry sources told SpaceNews that many at SMC are baffled that a new agency had to be created instead of empowering SMC with those special authorities to cut through red tape.

Moving pieces of SMC’s space portfolio to SDA appears to be a quick fix that does not address the “fundamental challenge” of Pentagon regulations that slow down procurement, says the letter. “SDA seems to be an organizational solution to a process problem that will most likely result in more bureaucracy, not more capacity.”

The letter points tout that SMC already is being reorganized to speed up the fielding of next-generation space technologies. It suggests it would be more beneficial to “expand SMC than to break it up.”

The questions raised by Calvert and Lieu came up last week during a hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee on the administration Space Force proposal. Some senators seemed confused by the role of the SDA, which is billed as part of the broad space reorganization but was stood up as a DoD agency, and not included in Space Force proposal. Shanahan’s March 12 memo says the SDA eventually will transition to the Space Force if Congress authorizes the new branch.

Outgoing Air Force Secretary Wilson, who has opposed the SDA since the beginning, pointed out to lawmakers that the agency was never proposed by the White House as part of the Space Force proposal.

In a Feb. 26 memo to Griffin, Wilson said the SDA “appears to replicate existing organizations, already authorized by Congress.” She wrote that the SDA lacks a “uniquely identifiable mission that cannot be accomplished by current organizations.”

In the memo, Wilson also questioned the SDA vision of building future space systems from LEO constellations. “It is premature to conclude that a massively proliferated low Earth orbit architecture would be more resilient in the face of deliberate attack than alternative, similar priced architectures. The proposed plan requires in-depth supporting analysis and validation by the warfighter.”

The SDA last week became a lightning rod at the Space Symposium in Colorado Springs. Wilson in a speech fired back at Kennedy, who laid out a plan to develop a new space architecture and defended DoD’s decision to create the agency on grounds that the Air Force has been slow to innovate and is not taking advantage of commercial space innovation.

Air Force Lt. Gen. John Thompson. Credit: Keith Johnson
Air Force Lt. Gen. John Thompson. Credit: Keith Johnson

Striking a conciliatory note, SMC Commander Lt. Gen. John Thompson told reporters at the Space Symposium that he would have no problem working with Kennedy and the SDA.

“Let me just go on the record and say unequivocally that we are great friends with Dr. Fred Kennedy,” he said. “SMC has a tradition of partnership with a number of entities, including DARPA, where Fred Kennedy came from. We’ve worked with him numerous times over the years,” Thompson said. “It may not be well known to a lot of people, but Fred Kennedy is an SMC alum and we really look forward to working with him as he stands up the Space Development Agency. We’re willing to provide any kind of support that Fred needs.”

Thompson noted that there is a “tremendous amount of passionate debate about what architectures are best for the future. … We love that debate.”