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Space Force Could Break the Acquisition Mold – But Will It?

The Space Force can develop new, better means of acquiring systems – but it’s off to poor start.

For decades, the Department of Defense (DOD) has struggled to establish a more efficient, less costly weapon systems acquisition process. Unfortunately, those efforts have met with mixed success. The newly formed U.S. Space Force has an opportunity to start with a clean sheet of paper and explore better ways of buying its equipment. But this nascent military department is starting out focusing on the wrong aspects of acquiring systems. In her article published in Breaking Defense, Theresa Hitchens writes:

“To build a resilient force structure, Space Force leaders want to develop what they are calling a ‘hybrid architecture,’ mixing small constellations of large, exquisite, and expensive military satellites with large constellations of smaller, less costly-but-still-bespoke satellites dispersed into a variety of orbits. Creating that architecture – which would include commercial space systems and services – will not be easy, nor cheap.”

Hitchens has described the high-low mix satellite strategy embraced by Space Force leaders. That is the “what,” if you will. Reforming the acquisition system requires changing the “how” systems are procured. The three aspects of good acquisition programs are on cost, on schedule, and performance in compliance with the contract specifications. In another of Breaking Defense’s reports, we see the importance of “who” is doing “what.” This report emphasizes the “realignment of space policy development that in the past has been directly under the purview of the Air Force secretary, handing them instead to the office of the Space Force chief.”

GettyImages-1234298065 Space Force

(NASA/Joel Kowsky)

In a May 2020 article for C4ISRNET, Nathan Strout heralded a “new approach” to acquisition. It was titled: “Space Force lays out acquisitions reforms in new report.” That report, as the Department of the Air Force described the content, “… will create a new space acquisition approach for the USSF (U.S. Space Force) that is the envy of all other services and ultimately enables the USSF to rapidly leverage industry innovation to outpace space threats.”

Despite the self-promoting bureaucratic elegance of the prose, as of October 2021 – 17 months later – USSF, the Air Force, and DOD are still arguing over who’s in charge. In an Air Force Magazine report, Abraham Mahshie explained that Frank Kendall, Air Force secretary, plans to “consolidate the Space Acquisition Directorate from the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics, or SAF/AQ, into a new organization, Space Acquisition and Integration, or SAF/SQ.” Furthermore, Kendall plans for space acquisition policy – which, after all, drives how space systems are procured – to stay in the SAF/SQ office.

The implementation of space weapons and the more significant space policy will move to the new military service, USSF. Meanwhile, any responsibility for policy on how USSF will interact internationally will go back to the “deputy undersecretary of the Air Force for international affairs, or SAF/IA.” If all this arranging of deckchairs is confusing, think of the people who work in these offices. When the music stops, they grab an office. But nothing in all this organizational restructuring does one thing to improve the actual buying of stuff for space.

New Banner Military AffairsEnsuring that weapon systems acquisition is in the right organizational bucket seldom supports individual programs being on cost, on schedule, and performing. So, whose sandbox the game is in might be enjoyable organizational swordplay for the news media, but it isn’t necessarily helpful in achieving efficient and effective programs. Remember: Getting the right weapon or capability to the warfighter in time to be decisive is the only thing that matters for the soldier, sailor, airman, or Guardian (the new name for members of the U.S. Space Force).

If the USSF needs counsel on where to place leadership emphasis, as Liberty Nation has reported in the past, the commercial space ventures are a good place to look for guidance. There does not seem to be the interminable shuffling of offices, rolls, and responsibilities at higher headquarters at SpaceX, Virgin Galactic, or Blue Origin.

Nevertheless, the new USSF and the U.S. Air Force leadership must get their organizational act together and focus on acquiring systems efficiently. The taxpayer has a perception of defense acquisition programs where the government says to the aerospace and defense industry, “we want weapons faster, better, cheaper,” and the industry replies: “We can do it faster, better, cheaper, no matter how long it takes or how much it costs.” The new U.S. Space Force has an opportunity to eliminate that perception. The question is: Will it?

The views expressed are those of the author and not of any other affiliation.

Read more from Dave Patterson.

Read More From Dave Patterson

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