A compromise defense policy bill released Dec. 9 makes some progress toward unifying military space acquisitions, but ultimately delays big decisions on creating one authority to oversee every aspect of purchasing military satellites and their related terminals and ground stations.
The bill, which passed the House Dec. 11, makes some efforts to establish a structure for space acquisitions under the newly established Space Force — a sixth branch of the military that some see as a rejiggered Air Force Space Command. The legislation would establish a new position as well as a new council to oversee space acquisitions, but questions remain. For example, the new setup does not bring all military space acquisitions under Space Force, nor does it further define the roles of existing acquisitions organizations.
The most significant result of Congress’ reshuffling is the decision to move the Space Development Agency from where it currently exists within the Under Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering’ purview to the Space Force.
Space Development Agency leaders explain how their organization differentiates itself from the military's other space-related organizations.
Mike Griffin, the Pentagon official who oversees research and engineering, “may have wanted to keep control under his office at R&E, but realistically this is a services job," said Todd Harrison, director of defense budget analysis at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington D.C.-based think tank. "It’s the job of the military services to organize, train and equip, and the Space Development Agency is on the equipment side. And so I think it makes sense and this is going to keep that agency alive and well, whereas if it had not become part of the Space Force it very well could have floundered into irrelevancy.”
The SDA was established in March to develop a new multi-layered space architecture comprised of hundreds of satellites in low earth orbit providing a plethora of new or redundant capabilities. Whereas the vast majority of the military’s satellite systems are acquired by and controlled by the Air Force, the Space Development Agency was unique in that it reports to the under secretary.
“It always begs the question if you’ve got one acquisition organization that’s delivering one layer of missile defense and another acquisition organization that’s delivering the higher layer of missile defense, there should be coordination. There should be sharing. There should be some sort of synergy between those, so it never made sense to split the different space layers between totally different acquisition organizations," Harrison said. "So now we put together under one unified chain of command so they’ll be able to better coordinate technology development, technology sharing, program plans, schedules, budgets.”
Critics of the SDA have expressed confusion over the need for such an organization given that it’s mission to build a new architecture of LEO small satellites could be fulfilled by the Space Rapid Capabilities Office. The agency’s relationship to the Missile Defense Agency and the Air Force has remained fuzzy to outsiders, even if it has moved forward quickly in engaging with industry and plotting out what a LEO-based architecture would look like.
Despite moving the SDA into the Air Force, the legislation doesn’t clarify the agency’s role. It exists as another organization alongside the Air Force’s Space and Missile Systems Center, which has primarily handled the service’s largest satellite contracts, and the Space Rapid Capabilities Office as part of the new Space Force.
Though the Space Force will report to the Secretary of the Air Force, mirroring the relationship between the Marines and the Navy, the compromise bill starts the process of separating space acquisitions from the rest of the Air Force’s portfolio over a three year period, further establishing Space Force’s relative independence.
The legislation renames the principal assistant to the secretary of the Air Force for space as the assistant secretary for space acquisition and integration. Congress envisions this job will be the senior architect for space systems and programs across the Department of Defense. While initially advising the Air Force’s service acquisition executive on all things space, the new position would take over all Air Force space acquisitions Oct. 1, 2022, serving as a co-equal service acquisition executive reporting to the Secretary of the Air Force. The job would oversee the Space Development Agency, the Space and Missile Systems Center and the Space Rapid Capabilities Office.
The legislation would also create a new Space Force Acquisition Council led by this new acquisition executive to ensure integration across the national security space enterprise, a long time problem for the military. The council would include the under secretary of the Air Force, the director of the National Reconnaissance Office, the chief of space operations, the assistant secretary of defense for space policy and the head of U.S. Space Command.
While the new group could increase collaboration and decrease duplication between the military and the intelligence community when it comes to space assets, the provision also points out a notable absence in Congress’ attempt to begin unifying space acquisitions. Specifically, it does not take steps to bring intelligence satellites and the few space assets controlled by other branches of the military, such as the Army and Navy, under the same roof. Instead, Congress wants a number of reports to help it decide whether that’s even an appropriate action to take.
The legislation directs the secretary of the Air Force to report on the feasibility of an alternative acquisition system for procuring space vehicles, ground segments and terminals. It also asks for a report on whether the National Reconnaissance Agency—the organization charged with procuring and operating the nation’s spy satellites—should be integrated into Air Force acquisitions systems.