Space Force procurement chief criticizes over-engineered satellite programs

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Frank Calvelli: 'The old approach, the seven-year development contracts that we're doing, that has to change'

NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. — The U.S. Space Force is buying billion-dollar satellites that on average take seven years to develop while China is moving to build new constellations at a rapid pace. This is a problem that calls for new ways of doing business, said Frank Calvelli, assistant secretary of the Air Force for space acquisition and integration.

Speaking on a panel Sept. 20 at the Air, Space & Cyber conference, Calvelli said satellites need to be smaller, cheaper and made more rapidly.

“The old approach, the seven-year development contracts that we’re doing for GEO satellites … that has to change,” he said, referring to the next-generation geostationary missile warning satellites that the Space Force is buying.

“That should not be that hard,” he added. “It’s a seven-year development for a class of spacecraft that we have been building as a nation for 30 to 40 years.”

To produce satellites faster and at lower cost, the Space Force needs to move away from cost-plus contracts that incentivize contractors to redesign and over-engineer systems, he said.

A model for the Space Force to follow is the one used by the Space Development Agency, which buys larger numbers of satellites on fixed-price contracts. “We really want to go fast, we have got to stop the traditional way of building satellites, and the sort of large seven-year cost-plus contracts and go to smaller systems that are more proliferated,” he said. “And stop redesigning everything.”

Addressing industry executives in the audience, Calvelli said, “please bid on programs with realistic cost and realistic schedules, and please bid on programs you can be successful at. And then when you win that contract, execute and deliver those programs on cost and on schedule … I think this is going to be key to all of our success as a nation and to counter the threat against China.”

Since taking over in May as the Department of the Air Force’s space acquisition executive, Calvelli has noticed a “track record of being late on programs, and we have to turn that track record around and actually execute.”

He said he worries that managers add cost and schedule to programs to get a relatively small technology improvement. “We end up down this development path for that 10% extra performance. And we end up adding two years to the schedule. And I just don’t think that is an effective approach,” he said. 

“Now that there is a threat, there is a sense of urgency, I think we have to back off on that. And we have to start to use existing technology, existing designs in different ways to get speed,” said Calvelli. “It’s really going to be key for us to enter this new paradigm of how we want to go develop things faster. We just can’t afford to do things like we did in the past.”

Brig. Gen. Stephen Purdy, the Space Force’s program executive officer for assured access to space, said contractors can contribute to the problem by promising solutions that they know they can’t deliver. 

“I need an honest frank conversation with the industry but what I don’t need is the BD sales pitch,” he said, using the abbreviation for business development. 

An example is digital engineering tools, a technology that is in high demand in the Space Force. “We get a lot of industry pitches” that are not credible and intended to persuade buyers that didn’t grow up with that technology, said Purdy. “And so what I really, really need is for industry to understand where our systems are and what our needs are and how you can plug into those needs in a non proprietary way,” he said. “Don’t try to sell me on something that I am going to have to go buy a license for a year to eternity.”

“You may have a great solution that works great in your lab, but I have 12 other contractors that are saying exactly the same thing,” he said. “And it’s very difficult to get past those BD sales pitches into some real discussions.”