WASHINGTON — One of the top lawmakers in charge of the defense budget raised doubts Friday about whether the U.S. Space Force has lived up to its promise to reform the way it purchases space systems.
While the nascent service has moved quickly to structure itself into an independent organization, Rep. Betty McCollum, House Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense chair, said in a virtual hearing that she was disappointed in how little the Space Force had done to improve space acquisitions so far.
“In the 16 months since Space Force was established, significant progress has been made in standing up this operations unit,” said McCollum in a budget hearing with senior Air Force leadership and Chief of Space Operations Gen. Jay Raymond. “However, while progress has been made on the operations side, progress in addressing long-standing acquisitions issues has been disappointing so far. Too often over the past two decades, the space acquisitions programs have been delivered late, over budget, and sometimes billions of dollars over budget.”
The Space Force may be new, but the military’s space programs have suffered from delays and significant cost overruns for years.
“Just one example is the current missile warning satellite program, which according to GAO [Government Accountability Office] was delivered nine years late — that’s nine — and $15 billion over its original estimate,” said McCollum. “The intent of establishing Space Force was to fix these issues. Yet to date, space acquisition seems to be the sum of its previous parts with minor tweaks around the edges.”
A $6.2 billion ground system to command and control GPS satellites has also raised concerns in recent years. In 2016, reports that software issues could lead the Next Generation Operational Control System (OCX) to exceed its cost estimates by 20 percent triggered a Nunn-McCurdy breach — a statutory limit designed to stop massive spending growth within government programs. A 2019 GAO report noted that the program was already five years behind schedule, and in 2020 the Space Force further delayed the project when it announced it would spend $378 million to replace the system’s hardware.
“Too often we over promise and underperform, and we need to fix that,” said acting Secretary of the Air Force John Roth in response to McCollum.
Even when everything goes to plan, the time it takes from setting requirements to launching a new major satellite system can easily stretch over a decade. Following up, ranking member Rep. Ken Calvert drew a distinction between the slow, years-long process that characterizes military space systems and the dynamism in commercial space.
“Status quo is not acceptable,” he noted. “How can we align our resources and our acquisition strategies and to work with industry to capture their enthusiasm and motivation?”
Raymond was quick to admit that his organization needs to be faster.
“We have got to go faster in modernizing our space capabilities and delivering capabilities and putting them in the hands of the war fighter,” said Raymond.
Significant reforms or tweaks at the edges?
Continuing, Raymond said change starts with force design, something that the Space Warfighting Analysis Center is working on. That effort will help drive unification, he said. The force design is expected by the end of the summer, and the Space Force will host an industry day to unveil its plans and gather feedback.
And while McCollum referred to the changes as “minor tweaks around the edges,” the Space Force has pursued some reforms to the acquisitions process it took over from the Air Force in 2019.
Most notably, the service has proposed restructuring its main acquisitions arm — the Space and Missile Systems Center (SMC) — into a new field command called Space Systems Command. That command will continue some of the reforms adopted by the Air Force a few years back known as SMC 2.0, which started pushing approval authorities down to the people actually working on the programs and streamlining the military bureaucracy.
Still, even that new field command gives some ammo to Space Force doubters. Early on, SSC was touted as a new organization that would unify space acquisitions efforts and transfer space capabilities from the other services into the Space Force. However, most of the unification and transfers remain in the future. Major space acquisitions organizations, such as the Space Development Agency and Space Rapid Capabilities Office, will remain outside of SSC for the time being, and the Space Force has yet to release a full list of which capabilities will transfer in from the other services.
SSC is expected to stand up this summer, assuming that the Senate approves a nominee to lead the field command.
The Space Force also released a list of acquisition reforms it would like to see adopted last year. While the Space Force has been able to undertake some of those on its own, such as pushing acquisition authorities to the lowest possible level, others need legislation to be enacted.
Beyond those structural reforms, the Space Force has moved with the Air Force in adopting new acquisition methods, such as the Space Enterprise Consortium and other transaction authorities (OTA). Those methods enable the Space Force to adopt rapid prototyping and experimentation, allowing multiple companies to design and build potential solutions. That way, SMC can see what solution works the best and what pitfalls might torpedo the project before the service is locked into a vendor. Other efforts like Space Pitch Day have helped to bring in nontraditional vendors that may struggle to navigate the Department of Defense contracting apparatus.
A new acquisitions executive for space
Beyond her concerns about space acquisitions more broadly, McCollum expressed frustration that the Department of the Air Force has yet to appoint an assistant secretary of the Air Force to lead space acquisitions — a new position created by Congress along with the Space Force in 2019.
“We need to see movement. Nowhere is the lack of progress more evident than the absence of a senior civilian acquisition leadership solely focused on space within the Department of the Air Force,” said McCollum. “I strongly urge the administration to quickly fill this position at the earliest opportunity and to seek a space acquisition professional to carry out this important responsibility,”
Roth was quick to agree.
“I share your concern,” said Roth. “The position ought to be filled — probably should have been filled last year as well, but for reasons beyond our control they were not filled at the time. So that position needs to be filled as soon as possible.”
Roth also pointed out that the position will not officially become the space acquisition executive until Oct. 1, 2022, under the law that established the Space Force. He suggested that Congress amend the law so the transition of those authorities can happen earlier, once the position is filled.
“Now, we haven’t sat on our hands. We’ve taken a look at that office, and we’ve organized it in a way that whoever comes in can hopefully — for lack of a better word — hit the ground running and start out,” he added.
Raymond also threw his full support behind the need to fill the position.
Nathan Strout is the staff editor at C4ISRNET. He covers space, unmanned and intelligence systems.