Since its inception four years ago, the U.S. Space Force has faced congressional scrutiny and received numerous directives to transform the military’s space capabilities at warp speed.
Lawmakers have pointed to delays and cost overruns plaguing legacy space programs and have called on Space Force leaders to take swift action to deliver the next generation of satellites, weapon systems and infrastructure seen as vital to the projection of unrivaled space dominance.
In 2021, the Space Force’s first chief of space operations, the since-retired Gen. Jay Raymond, was asked at a National Press Club event what kept him up at night. “Our ability to go fast” was his answer. The previous spring, in a speech to Air Force Academy graduates about to be commissioned into the Space Force, Raymond urged them to “build the Space Force as the first digital service, and lay the foundation of a service that is innovative and can go fast.” With speed in mind, the service established the Space Systems Command in 2021 to accelerate procurement and delivery of next-generation technologies.
Gen. Chance Saltzman assumed command of the Space Force a year ago and has since laid out an ambitious plan to boost U.S. capabilities for strategic competition against China and Russia. But as he begins his second year at the helm, Saltzman also wants to balance expectations with a healthy dose of reality.
“I do feel a sense of urgency, and I feel like we have a plan,” Saltzman said Nov. 15 at a defense industry event hosted by the Atlantic Council.
But Congress can’t expect the Space Force to mimic the pace of the private sector, Saltzman said, noting that the government machinery shifts slowly by design, not by fault.
“I’ve been in the Pentagon long enough to know this,” he said. “You think, ‘Hey, we’ve got a good idea, let’s just turn on a dime and make this happen,’ but it’s just not the way the U.S. government works.”
Meanwhile, on Capitol Hill, Congress has reinforced demands for rapid modernization, standing up a powerful new civilian overseer to consolidate fragmented authorities scattered across offices and agencies.
The first assistant secretary of the Air Force for space acquisition and integration, Frank Calvelli, is a former National Reconnaissance Office executive handpicked to accelerate acquisitions. One of his first acts was laying out what he called a “simple formula to go fast” to help the Space Force adopt the more agile procurement methods that his former agency perfected.
Sand in the gears
Notably, while Congress has urged speed, the erratic government funding process over the past several years has thrown sand in the gears of Pentagon modernization, setting next-generation programs back significantly, according to Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall.
A lack of timely appropriations, Kendall said Nov. 13, continues to actively undermine space programs. The Pentagon can meet day-to-day commitments on temporary funding, he said, but needs long-term budgets to properly plan the way forward.
The most visible display of speed in the Space Force today is the Space Development Agency’s push to deploy a sprawling constellation of up to 400 low Earth orbit satellites by 2026. If achieved, this would be a feat rarely seen in national security programs accustomed to one-of-a-kind, exquisitely complex systems designed and built over decades.
SDA, however, is the outlier and not the mainstream.
“Government is designed to be plodding. It’s designed to be slow and methodical. It’s not designed to be entrepreneurial with taxpayer dollars,” said Saltzman. “And you just have to recognize that.”
When people say “go fast,” he added, “what I have to hear in my head is ‘go government fast, not SpaceX fast, not Google fast.’ That’s not realistic for me.”
A more attainable goal, he said, is improving how the Space Force works alongside ground, air and naval forces. “Space as a contested domain is a relatively new acknowledgement. So now I’ve got to up my game to make sure that our guardians are trained and ready, so they can be a part of that joint force in the same integrated way as all the other services.”
Besides that, said Saltzman, “I need to do a lot better with expectation management.”
This article first appeared in the ‘On National Security’ commentary feature in the December 2023 issue of SpaceNews magazine.