Col. Eric Felt speaks at the Air Force Research Laboratory’s space exhibit at Kirtland Air Force Base, New Mexico. Credit: U.S. Air Force photo by Arturo Cardona

WASHINGTON — Secretary of the Air Force Frank Kendall last year rolled out a list of high-priority technologies, including space systems, where the Pentagon intends to pump more funding in order to stay ahead of China. These planned investments offer an unprecedented opportunity to “go after and harness commercial innovation from the space industry,” Col. Eric Felt, director of space architecture and integration, said Jan. 11.

“I have never in my 25 years of service seen the department move so much money so fast toward priorities that the secretary laid out. That’s exciting,” Felt said at the “State of the Space Industrial Base” webinar hosted by the National Defense Industrial Association.

Felt said his boss, assistant secretary of the Air Force for acquisition and integration Frank Calvelli, is pushing the message across the Space Force that staying ahead technologically is not just about spending more but spending smarter. Part of that strategy is avoiding costly government development programs and tapping commercially available technologies. 

“What’s so exciting to the Space Force and the space acquisition community about all this commercial innovation is that we can use it to maintain our technology lead, and deter conflict with our competitors,” said Felt. With regard to space systems, “we see solutions that are going to help us get after that problem and really deliver the kinds of capabilities that our warfighters need.”

Felt noted that how the Pentagon spends its space dollars can have a significant impact on the health of the industry. “The things that we do in space acquisition can be super helpful to our industrial base or super harmful to our industrial base,” he said, as a healthy space sector is important for national security and for the economy.

Calvelli has been insistent about the need for speed in acquisitions, and that goes along with the idea of using more commercial technologies, and building smaller satellites, said Felt. 

“His formula for going faster in acquisition starts with smaller systems, and that includes buying more commercial systems … That is a big thrust of what we’re doing,” he added. 

These rules were laid out by Calvelli in an Oct. 31 memo that procurement offices are “now figuring out how to implement,” said Felt.

Following this new direction, he said, “I think will be very healthy for the Space Force and healthy for the industry as well.”

‘We need to invest properly’

Steve “Bucky” Butow, director of the space portfolio at the Defense Innovation Unit, said DoD needs to spend wisely on commercial products and services, and that means awarding “meaningful contracts” that benefit the government and the private sector. 

“What we really want is a strong commercial space industrial base that supports not just the military but our economic security, and our exploration efforts with NASA,” Butow said at the NDIA webinar. 

“Prototyping, experimentation and validation of space capabilities is an area that traditionally has been underfunded,” he said. “It’s getting better. But if we want to have robust capabilities, we really need to make sure that we’re investing properly in research and development, to include prototyping activities that we do with commercial companies that are doing really interesting things to give the U.S. a competitive advantage in space.”

“The next thing is meaningful contracts,” he said. 

“That extends to not just procurement of widgets, but services. Services contracts are not normally done in the Department of Defense. But most of the interesting things that are going to be offered in space are going to be available as commercial services. And we really need the U.S. Space Force to be the executive agent for the entire department to make a wide variety of services available.”

Need metrics of success

A concern for DoD in the great power competition with China is how to measure success, warned Richard “Doc” Klodnicki, president and CEO of the consulting firm Aereti Inc.

When experts try to handicap the space race, too much emphasis is placed on the number of space launches, or on how many exploration vehicles and satellites each country sends to orbit, Klodnicki noted. 

“I would caution against focusing on what China is doing versus what it is we want to do,” he said. “I’m not so sure that number of launches is always the right metric.” 

If satellites are being launched to replace existing assets, “that’s not innovation, that’s operations, maintenance and sustainment,” he said. “I think we need to start looking at what are the metrics of interest that we’re using, and how are we then moving those forward.”

The U.S. needs to figure out what success means “without regard to what China’s doing, but rather with regard to what the United States and its allied partners want to accomplish, and that will force China to have to follow too.”

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...