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Space Force procurement chief emphatic about the ‘need for speed’

Frank Calvelli said traditional contracts where the government bears the risks and pays for cost overruns will no longer be acceptable
PARIS -- A sudden, sharp increase in labor and raw materials costs in Russia and Ukraine has forced Sea Launch Co. to renegotiate already signed contracts with its suppliers and accept hefty price increases in new contracts, Sea Launch President Rob Peckham said.

WASHINGTON — Frank Calvelli, assistant secretary of the Air Force for space acquisition and integration, told an audience of space entrepreneurs that he is trying to drive a sense of urgency in military procurements. 

“I want to go fast in space acquisition,” Calvelli said Dec. 6 at a TechCrunch Space event in Los Angeles, where he was interviewed by Tess Hatch, vice president of Bessemer Venture Partners.

Agility in procurements is an imperative Calvelli discussed in an Oct. 31 memo where he laid out nine space acquisition tenets.

“I think that the threats against our systems posed by both Russia and China right now are too great,” said Calvelli.

These countries are developing anti-satellite weapons that are expected to target U.S. systems in a future conflict. In response, the United States is working to deploy proliferated networks of satellites that would be harder to disrupt and cheaper to build than traditional military satellites. 

The U.S. today has a “magnificent architecture that the Department has built over decades for missile warning, missile tracking, precision navigation and timing, satellite communications and space domain awareness,” Calvelli said. 

“These are fantastic systems” but most of these satellites are very large, he added, and “we put a lot of stuff in geosynchronous orbit. So there’s not much diversification of our systems.”

“And when you look at the threat, you look at how important space is, not only to the warfighter, but also to the U.S. economy. It’s really important that we drive our architecture to have some resiliency, and that’s going to be through diversification, diversification of orbits and proliferation of satellites,” said Calvelli.

He said he wrote the nine tenets because “I really, really want to go faster.” The “old way of doing business” was to spend a decade developing large satellites. “We need to change that paradigm and do things much faster.”

Message to industry

Calvelli also wanted these tenets to serve as “my messaging to the industry” that the traditional contracts where the government bears the risks and pays for cost overruns will no longer be acceptable. 

He said future satellites will follow the playbook of the Space Development Agency, which has ordered hundreds of satellites under fixed-price contracts. The agency is procuring a large constellation of missile-tracking and data-relay satellites in low Earth orbit. 

Calvelli encouraged space startups to continue to innovate and take advantage of DoD seed-funding programs offered by organizations like SpaceWERX and the Defense Innovation Unit. 

“Keep driving technology and bring those ideas forward,” said Calvelli. At TechCrunch, some vendors’ displays that caught his attention were for virtual reality systems that simulate the space environment, electric propulsion for satellites, and in-space satellite refueling.

“Keep pushing the envelope on space,” Calvelli said.

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...