US ‘Will Fail’ If Space Acquisition Doesn’t Reform: CSPC

Blue Origin’s New Glenn rocket, image by Blue Origin

WASHINGTON: DoD and Congress must push harder to reform space acquisition or the new Space Force may well fall back into the tired — and ever more risky — old and slow ways, says a new report by the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress (CSPC).

Mike Rogers, former Republican chair of the powerful House Intelligence Committee (HPSCI), said today the “overwhelming” instinct within the DoD acquisition community is “to take what they know and plop it over” to the Space Force.

“If we do that, we will fail. We, the United States will fail,” warned Rogers, who is a principle at CSPC along with former Democratic congressman Glenn Nye. Nye, who sat on the House Armed Services Committee, is CSPC’s president.

The new report, “Maintaining Momentum In National Security Space,” makes a number of recommendations based on a year’s worth of discussions with some 200 space experts from academia, government, the military, Congress and industry.

Acquisition reform is number two on the list, stating: “Acquisition reform must move beyond the edges to the core programs of record.”

Former Congressman Mike Rogers

The report asserts that if Space Force does not move more forcefully on acquisition reform, the US will lose its competitive edge to China and Russia. “True reform means going beyond simply shaving time off existing acquisition cycles and instead revamping what things are bought and the way they are bought,” it says.

The report applauds the efforts being made by innovation hubs like AFWERX, and now SpaceWERX, and the Rapid Capabilities Office, but it says those “small dollar” activities are not nearly enough. It bemoans that big ticket programs by and large are continuing along well-trodden acquisition pathways.

For example, the report calls out as a “fitting example” of business as usual the $4.9 billion contract to Lockheed Martin for Next-Generation Overhead Persistent Infrared (Next-Gen OPIR) satellites. Under the program, the report explains, “five satellites [are] to be deployed by 2028, the earliest of which may fly by 2025, at a cost of nearly $9 billion.”

While that contracting process “may have been ‘swifter’ than previous competitions, it by no means leverages next-generation capabilities, mega-constellations, or other cutting-edge technologies,” the report says.” If anything, it is a continuation of the deployment of “juicy targets,” in the words of Gen. John Hyten, the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and previous commander of U.S. Strategic Command.”

Further, the report takes a swipe at the new Space Force plan to transform Space and Missile Systems Center (SMC) into Space Systems Command.  

“Indeed, while the Space Force is defining its own culture, nomenclature, and heraldry—e.g. “Deltas” instead of “Wings”—if it fails to reform fundamental processes and structures, little will have ultimately changed. It is insufficient to rebrand Space and Missile Systems Center (SMC) as Space Systems Command, for instance, without actually changing what is bought, how it is bought, and who is responsible for its purchase.”

The report also bemoans the ongoing approach to acquiring military launch capabilities:

“The proliferation of launch options and easier space access means that more diverse opportunities are available for the Space Force and the national security space enterprise writ large. It no longer makes sense to tie the entirety of the architecture to one class of launch vehicles hamstrung by unique or bespoke government requirements. Diversification of the supply chain will also yield resiliency in times of crisis when immovable or centralized launch sites may be threatened or out of commission.”

CSPC recommends that DoD “shift away from being the launch customer to one among several space access customers (emphasis theirs.) This will require, the report says, changing the definition of what constitutes ‘assured access.’ “Having assured access must mean more than dedicated launch providers and take on a more robust meaning.”

Former Congressman Glenn Nye

“The high-walled garden approach with all eggs in one, or now two baskets, may be appropriate when spacecraft are exquisite rare expensive and launches are correspondingly few, but to stay ahead of rapidly developing threats, we need faster development of more types of spacecraft and more launch options,” Brett Alexander, vice president, government sales & strategy for Blue Origin, said during CSPC’s panel discussion. “So the proliferation of launch capabilities is a good thing for national security, and we hope the Space Force will take advantage of this rapidly developing commercial launch capability as the CSPC report notes.”

Blue Origin’s New Glenn rocket, of course, was one of the losers in the hard-fought contest for phase 2 of the National Security Space Launch (NSSL) program. United Launch Alliance (ULA) and SpaceX nabbed mega-billion awards in a 60/40 split to provide (at least in principle) all Space Force and National Reconnaissance Office launches between 2022 and 2027.

Blue Origin (owned by Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos) was one of the sponsors of the report, along with ride-share firm NanoRacks and small launch firm Rocket Lab. The report itself which was based on a year’s worth of interviews and round tables with some 200 space experts from academia, government, the military, Congress, and industry.

The other key recommendations in the report are:

  • The Biden administration “should maintain the momentum of the development and growth of the Space Force,”
  • The “national security space enterprise must treat space as a complete ecosystem,” including “This necessitates an approach to acquisition that focuses on capabilities rather than platforms.”
  • The US must “Take the necessary steps to establish a United States-led multilateral rules-based order for orbit and other planetary bodies including the Moon.”

Nye explained that CSPC will be active in trying to move its recommendations forward, including by continuing to convene stakeholders in a safe space where they can talk freely. He also expressed some optimism that the recommended changes could be made, even relatively quickly, if decision-makers so choose.

“We understand that with the creation of a new bureaucracy comes some turf battling, and we witnessed some of that,” Nye said of the process for developing the recommendations. “But we also feel like there are opportunities,” he said, “and so we’re trying to time these recommendations to be actionable, in the sense that we have the opportunity with a relative newness of the Space Force, with the new administration coming in.”

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