U.S. Space Force creates acquisition command to build culture of innovation
Gen. John “Jay” Raymond, the leader of the U.S. Space Force, has been emphatic that the success of the service will depend on its technological might.
“You will build the Space Force as the first digital service, and lay the foundation of a service that is innovative and can go fast,” Raymond told a group of 86 Air Force Academy graduates who joined the Space Force in April.
Accelerating the pace of innovation is a huge imperative for the newest branch of the U.S. military, established in December 2019 with a mandate to ensure the U.S. stays ahead of foreign adversaries in the space technology race.
The traditional way of buying satellites and other space systems is problematic, Raymond has said, as programs take a decade or longer to move through the military acquisition process and struggle to keep up with commercial space innovation.
Another concern of Raymond, the chief of space operations, is the disjointed nature of the space procurement system, with multiple agencies that work under separate bureaucratic stovepipes.
With these issues in the backdrop, the Space Force on June 30 revealed plans to stand up a Space Systems Command as one of three field commands that will report directly to Raymond.
The other two are the Space Operations Command and the Space Training and Readiness Command, both to be located at Peterson Air Force Base, Colorado.
The Space Systems Command will be the acquisition arm of the Space Force. To be run by a three-star general, the command will be responsible for the development, acquisition and maintenance of satellites and ground systems, the procurement of satcom and launch services, and for making investments in next-generation technologies. It will oversee the Space Force’s approximately $12 billion annual budget for research, development and procurement of new systems.
Systems Command is not SMC
The military’s primary space procurement organization today is the Space and Missile Systems Center at Los Angeles Air Force Base. Officials said the new Space Systems Command is not replacing SMC but will be an umbrella organization bringing together SMC and other procurement agencies that are currently dispersed.
Lt. Gen. John “JT” Thompson, the commander of SMC, told SpaceNews that his organization will become the initial foundation of Space Systems Command. “This is truly a work in progress,” he said.
With SMC as the anchor, other organizations that will be moving under the Space Systems Command include the Commercial Satellite Communications Office — a group based in the Washington D.C. area that manages the procurement of commercial satcom for the Defense Department — and the Air Force Research Laboratory’s Space Vehicles Directorate, based at Kirtland Air Force Base, New Mexico.
Thompson noted that SMC over the past couple of years has been reorganized under an effort called SMC 2.0 that focused on efficiency and speed. “The transformation of SMC makes it exactly what we need as a foundational part for the new field command — a flat, agile acquisition organization, pushing authorities down to the lowest level possible for timely decision making.”
The next challenge will be to integrate other units beyond SMC, Thompson said. “This will enable increased synchronization in delivering technologies and systems to space operators, as well as increased partnership with the labs and their science and technology activities.”
The Pentagon’s Space Development Agency is expected to become part of Space Systems Command although the timing is still being negotiated. DoD established the SDA in March 2019 under the office of the undersecretary of defense for research and engineering in response to criticism that the U.S. military was not keeping up with the innovation happening in the space industry. The agency was given special authorities to cut red tape and acquire space technologies on an accelerated timeline.
Congress directed DoD to transfer the SDA to the Space Force by October 2022 but Air Force Secretary Barbara Barrett and Raymond have argued that the SDA should transition to the Space Force sooner.
Before leaving his post on July 10, Undersecretary of Defense for Research and Engineering Mike Griffin had pushed to delay the transfer of the SDA, insisting that the agency should not go to the Space Force until it has a chance to complete its first constellation of low orbiting satellites planned for 2022. Griffin’s departure has stirred speculation that the transfer of SDA to Space Systems Command will be accelerated.
Barrett and Raymond also want to bring the Space Rapid Capabilities Office under Space Systems Command but face pushback from Capitol Hill.
Based at Kirtland Air Force Base, the RCO develops and acquires classified space technologies using special authorities. The office currently reports to a board of directors made up of Air Force, Space Force and DoD officials. New Mexico lawmakers have proposed language in the 2021 National Defense Authorization Act to keep the RCO in its current status, arguing that if the RCO is swallowed up in the new bureaucracy it will slow down programs.
Space Force officials said they are in talks with DoD, Army and Navy leaders about transferring space organizations from those services to the Space Systems Command. That would include portions of the Army Space and Missile Defense Command in Huntsville, Alabama, that develop and procure satellites; and the Navy’s satellite communications office in San Diego, California. This remains a long shot, however, as neither service has signaled it is prepared to turn over any assets.
Space wings realigned
The Space Force has yet to announce the details of how the former Air Force space units known as space wings will fit under the three new field commands. Some will be assigned to Space Operations Command, others to Space Systems Command.
The space wings will be renamed “deltas” as a way to define their identity separately from the Air Force. The delta wing is a central design element in the Space Force seal and flag.
Under the new structure, some deltas will report to Space Operations Command and others, like the ones that oversee space launches in Florida and in California, will report to Space Systems Command.
Space Force spokeswoman Lynn Kirby said the space wings will be aligned to the new field commands according to their primary missions. Units responsible for space launch, developmental testing, on-orbit checkout, and sustainment and maintenance of space systems will align under Space Systems Command, she said. “Specific unit alignments and timelines will be announced when they are finalized.”
The two launch deltas — currently the 45h Space Wing at Patrick Air Force Base, Florida; and the 30th Space Wing at Vandenberg Air Force Base, California — will be under the Space Systems Command. These wings are now aligned with what used to be the 14th Air Force.
Former SMC commander retired Air Force Gen. Ellen Pawlikowski said it makes sense for the launch units to be aligned under Space Systems Command as SMC’s Launch Enterprise is responsible for procuring launch services from commercial companies.
The launch wings are a “better fit” under Systems Command, Pawlikowski told SpaceNews. “Launch operations today are really maintaining a range and overseeing contractors. I think that’s a really good move.”
Systems Command gets praise
Companies that sell space technologies to DoD, SMC and other military organizations hope the standup of a new acquisition command leads to more cohesion and consistency.
“We’re encouraged by anything that helps to clearly define authorities and discourage competition between entities that are doing the same thing,” said one industry executive.
In a recent white paper, the National Security Space Association said the Space Force should set clear “lanes in the road” for acquiring national security space systems. The paper notes that numerous defense and intelligence organizations are currently involved in developing and procuring space systems, which creates confusion for companies trying to sell technologies to the government.
Tom “Tav” Taverney, a retired Air Force major general and former vice commander of Air Force Space Command, said the standup of the three new field commands are a significant step forward for the nascent Space Force.
“It shows they are trying to re-imagine how acquisition fits into space operations, in a more agile way,” Taverney said.
Organizations like SMC, he noted, were built around the notoriously convoluted military acquisition process where bureaucrats spend years writing detailed requirements documents, reviewing and approving those requirements before anything is built.
“The reality today is we have to get systems into operations much faster,” said Taverney. “Adversaries are turning technology in three to five years, threats are emerging faster than we can keep up with.”
The Space Force said its new field commands will have a flatter management structure than current organizations. That in itself will help speed up programs to some degree, said Taverney, but it’s not going to be enough unless processes are simplified and managers are willing to delegate authority.
“If the intent is a lean, more agile organization, it certainly would be helpful to empower leaders with decision making,” he said.
Pawlikowski, the former SMC commander, said Congress and DoD will have to trust the Space Force leadership and allow them to do things “a little different.”
The Space Force has been given a big task, she told SpaceNews. The performance of the Space Systems Command will be key to the success of the service, she said. “Raymond really understands space operations. He’s going to need a really smart person to do the acquisition side. If they don’t get the right talent in there then they will struggle,” Pawlikowski said. “They need people who understand how to calibrate risk and work their way through it.”
Lance Lord, retired Air Force general and former commander of Air Force Space Command, said having a single command focused on acquisition is “good for the culture.”
One key objective of the Space Force is to cultivate its own unique culture. In space acquisitions, “that would be hard to do when people are in different organizations,” Lord said. The Space Systems Command creates a “center of gravity.”
Lord has closely followed the standup of the Space Force. “A lot of thought went into this,” he said. “I’m sure there are things that will create little friction to start with. That happens in any reorganization. But they’re heading in the right direction.”
This article originally appeared in the July 13, 2020 issue of SpaceNews magazine.