Space Force pushing procurement reforms but culture change is a slow go

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Gen. David Thompson: A shift to buying commercially provided space services is going to take time and will require a cultural adjustment

WASHINGTON — The Space Force is standing up a new procurement organization and taking other actions to speed up acquisitions of cutting-edge technology from the commercial space industry. But change won’t happen overnight due to the military’s deeply ingrained culture, said Gen. David Thompson, vice chief of space operations of the U.S. Space Force.

Speaking via video April 21 at a conference hosted by C4ISRNET, Thompson said the Space Force is optimistic that the new Space Systems Command will push to accelerate the transition from legacy programs to innovative products and services now offered by the private sector. 

Commercial satellite communications services is a case in point, Thompson said. An office within the Space Force’s Space and Missile Systems Center is looking at buying fully commercial services from satellite operators. Thompson said the Space Force is looking to expand that office’s responsibilities beyond just commercial SATCOM to other space-based commercial services.

But changing from the traditional business model of acquiring hardware to buying commercially provided space services is going to take time and will require a cultural shift, Thompson said.

“What we have to do now is transform our culture,” he said. Rather than think in terms of requirements that could take years to bring to fruition, the Space Force should look at “what’s available, what can it do for us?” Thompson said. 

When looking at possibly buying commercial services, for example, military procurement officers worry that providers that are here today might not be around tomorrow. They also worry about the reliability and cybersecurity of the services. 

Thompson said those are legitimate risks that have to be weighed against the benefits of being able to use privately funded technologies that the government does not have to develop from scratch. 

“How do we more appropriately balance risk between the money we spend, the investment we make and the risks associated with availability and security and other things,” he added.

Services like communications, remote sensing, surveillance and others are being offered and the Space Force has to think about “leveraging the commercial market,” Thompson said. 

“The biggest obstacle we have to overcome in using commercial services, and really using them, is culture,” he said.

Thompson and many of his peers in the military grew up in an era when space capabilities were hugely expensive and were only obtainable by the most sophisticated nations. “The barriers to entry were high and we grew a culture around that,” he said. 

Changing the culture is one of the priorities of Chief of Space Operations Gen. John Raymond, Thompson said. The standup of a Space Systems Command is one step on the road to faster innovation, he said, but other actions also are being pursued such as increased use of nontraditional contracting and greater outreach to startups and small businesses.