WASHINGTON — Eighteen months into his tenure, the U.S. Space Force’s top procurement official Frank Calvelli has steered the organization toward an acquisition philosophy centered on speed, and on ensuring contractors fulfill obligations and meet milestones.

After he unveiled his “space acquisition tenets,” Calvelli braced for resistance from stakeholders accustomed to the traditional way of doing business. But one year later, the industry appears to be supportive and aligned behind the directives, he said Nov. 7 at Aviation Week’s Aerospace & Defense Programs conference.

Calvelli, who is assistant secretary of the Air Force for space acquisition and integration, has been critical of large, bespoke satellite programs and has championed an approach defined by smaller, less customized spacecraft and rapid integration of commercial technology.

Asked if he is having second thoughts about his proposed reforms, Calvelli said he would “not change a thing.” In fact, he added, “I would double down on the tenets” because they address core issues that slow up space acquisition.

  • Build smaller satellites, smaller ground systems, and minimize non-recurring engineering
  • Get the acquisition strategy correct
  • Enable teamwork between contracting officer and program manager
  • Award executable contracts
  • Maintain program stability
  • Avoid special access programs and over-classifying
  • Deliver ground before launch
  • Hold industry accountable for results
  • Deliver capabilities that work, and deliver them on schedule and on cost

Companies in the space industry have gotten the message, said Calvelli. 

“By the amount of folks competing for work, I do see that the industry is already aligned,” he said. For a time, “there was a fear that maybe not many folks would bid on stuff, but that’s not the case at all. We have an overabundance of proposals and we’re excited about the fact that the industry is involved.”

Calvelli wants the Space Force to buy satellites following the Space Development Agency’s playbook. SDA is acquiring a large low-Earth orbit constellation of small satellites using fixed-price contracts and requiring vendors to make their spacecraft interoperable with those of other manufacturers. 

Some traditional procurements of large geostationary satellites will continue, such as next-generation missile-warning and military communications satellites, he said. “There will always be somewhat of a hybrid approach to doing business.” 

“I think that there’ll be a mix for a while,” said Calvelli. “Check back with me in about five or 10 years and see where we are.”

Fixed-price contracts are a must, he said, because they reduce the risk for DoD and relieve the government from “having a whole bunch of funds in reserve” to cover cost overruns. 

The same philosophy applies to software procurements, sid Calvelli.

A poster child for how not to acquire software is the ground system for the GPS constellation, known as OCX.  Because it’s so large and complex, it has been plagued by delays and cost overruns. The Space Force is now hoping to begin using OCX next year. 

Commercial reserve 

Calvelli said the Space Force also should seek opportunities to leverage commercial space services. An initiative to establish a commercial space reserve — to ensure the U.S. military has access to commercial satellites during conflicts — is a “great idea,” he said. 

The Space Systems Command is working on a blueprint for a Commercial Augmentation Space Reserve. “The devils in the details, but personally I like the idea,” said Calvelli. “I think the more that we can do with commercial and offload requirements, I think the better off we are.”

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...