Space Force procurement chief looking for big wins in 2023

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Frank Calvelli said his push for speed and agility in procurement programs is starting to resonate

WASHINGTON — As Frank Calvelli nears his first year as head of military space acquisitions, he is optimistic that his push for speed and agility in procurement programs is starting to resonate. In addition to long-term reforms, there are more pressing concerns on his mind, including upcoming satellite launches and the release of a new procurement strategy for national security launch services, Calvelli said Jan. 18.

Speaking at a GovConWire panel session with Lockheed Martin’s executive vice president Robert Lightfoot, Calvelli said his “space acquisition tenets” — that emphasize buying small satellites and commercially available technologies under fixed-price contracts — have been well received across the Space Force’s procurement organizations and he is hopeful that they will drive change in programs going forward. 

Calvelli serves as the Department of the Air Force’s first assistant secretary for space acquisitions and integration, a new position mandated by Congress. Since taking office, he has been a champion of the Space Development Agency, an organization formed inside the Pentagon in 2019 to help accelerate the use of commercial space technology and is now part of the U.S. Space Force.

SDA is building a constellation of small satellites in low Earth orbit using fixed-price contracts and agile methods advocated by Calvelli. But there are still skeptics who are not convinced the Pentagon should embrace this approach at the expense of traditional big-ticket satellite developments. So successfully launching SDA’s first 28 satellites in March and June has become a top concern for Calvelli, as any setbacks would give ammunition to critics. 

“March is big for us, it’s our first launch of Tranche 0, and getting those up there and those systems working is going to be really key,” he said. “And I think once we have that success, we’ll see this methodology take off like gangbusters.” 

“Seeing that SDA launch in March and those satellites work, I will start to get more sleep when that happens,” Calvelli said. “And then a second launch in June, that’s gonna be really key.”

Also keeping Calvelli up at night is the development of a new procurement strategy for the next national security launch services contracts expected to be awarded in 2024. 

“National Security Space Launch Phase 3 is going to be really an important acquisition that’s going to be coming up in the next year,” he said. Calvelli described the procurement strategy as a “key thing that I have lost some sleep over, and I hope not to lose any more.” 

With regard to national security space launch, Calvelli in December said he was closely watching the progress of United Launch Alliance’s new Vulcan rocket, a long-delayed vehicle that DoD depends on to launch critical missions over the next several years. ULA is now forecasting Vulcan’s first launch for the first quarter of 2023.

Also weighing on Calvelli are several troubled programs that he wants to push forward. “We’re talking about programs that are years behind schedule, and we need to get those programs over the finish line,” he said. “We really truly have to go faster. So yeah, I’ll probably lose sleep for a little bit.”