Space Acquisition Needs Improvements

Space Acquisition Needs Improvements

Josh Hartman, a former congressional staffer and Department of Defense (DOD) acquisition official, believes “we need to change what we buy and how we buy it” to meet DOD space requirements.

Now a principal at the Center for Strategic Space Studies (CS3), Hartman made the comments in opening a meeting sponsored by CS3 and the Space Foundation on Capitol Hill on Thursday. Hartman said the goal of the meeting was to start a government-industry dialogue on how to make that happen.

Under Secretary of the Air Force Erin Conaton, herself a former Hill staffer, made the keynote address and said she welcomed the opportunity to engage in that dialogue. Recounting the difficult financial straits in which the government finds itself today, she made clear that the Air Force would not be exempt from the constrained budgets that lie ahead. The only question is how limited they will be and how to juggle all the competing demands within the Air Force. Space activities are up against major force modernization programs such as the F-35 and ICBMs, she pointed out.

Conaton is one of the architects of the proposed Evolutionary Acquisition for Space Efficiency (EASE) strategy to change the way DOD acquires space systems. On Thursday, she focused on the need to use block buys in order to provide stability to prime contractors, to improve systems incrementally instead of looking “for the next best thing,” and to encourage and demand better prices for the taxpayers. EASE “is not the answer to everything,” she said, but it can “help on the industrial and cost profile” issues.

Acquisition of space systems has a long and troubled history in both the defense and civil arenas. Programs like the SBIRS-High early warning satellites, the Advanced EHF communications satellite system, and the NPOESS environmental satellites are poster children for the need to change the way business is done. Joanne Maguire, Executive Vice President of Lockheed Martin Space Systems, offered a long list of reviews Lockheed Martin is performing in response to the “long nightmare of the past decade” and the “self-inflicted wounds” of the “faster, better, cheaper” era. Her company will “not sacrifice mission assurance for affordability,” however, she said. She pointed to the need for stable requirements as a key factor in improving the situation. EASE can make a difference, she said, but only if the entire government “is in.”

Jim Armor of ATK, a second tier supplier, said that EASE is “OK with us,” though he noted that EASE calls for long term commitments while they are not yet well defined. Calling today’s environment “crunch time for the space industrial base,” he pointed to the successful launch of ORS-1 the night before, noting that there are no follow-on satellites in that series, it is one-of-a-kind. Praising the Obama National Space Policy released last year and the National Space Security Strategy issued early this year, he nonetheless asked “where’s the implementation?” Jim Simpson of Boeing said that block buys of satellites save 30 percent in the commercial sector, but it has to be implemented in “production mode,” after risk has been reduced in the development phase.

The House Appropriations Committee rejected EASE at its markup of the defense appropriations bill last month because it would require advance appropriations. Thus, this meeting also undoubtedly was part of an effort to better explain EASE to congressional staff.

Acquisition of launch services to put DOD and intelligence satellites in orbit was a key topic throughout the meeting and the subject of a special panel. The Air Force, the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO), and NASA recently signed a memorandum of agreement that commits the government to buying eight Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) cores per year for the next five years – a total of 40. The United Launch Alliance (ULA), a Lockheed Martin- Boeing joint venture, builds the Delta and Atlas families of EELVs and sells services to the government. The Air Force will fund five per year and the NRO will fund three. Gil Klinger, currently Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense, Space and Intelligence Office, and a long time player in the defense and intelligence space arena, commented that EELVs are the fifth largest expense center in the Air Force budget.

Chris Andrews from ULA traced the long history of the EELV program, which has endured many ups and downs and contract restructurings over the past decade and a half. The government bought a block buy of EELVs in the late 1990s – 28 vehicles – that were to be launched by 2006, but some still have not been launched, he said.

Larry Williams of SpaceX picked up on that point in criticizing the government’s decision to commit to 40 EELV cores. Why make such a commitment when “competition is just around the corner” with new entrants like SpaceX, he asked? Based on how long it is taking to launch the 28 vehicles bought years ago, he believes it will take to the end of the decade to launch these 40. Meanwhile, new entrants might be able to offer much lower costs if given the chance. He also took issue with those who claim that there is overcapacity in the launch services market today. His company is signing lots of orders, he said, and is bringing that business back to the United States.

The government speakers made it clear, however, they were not willing to risk mission success on unproven launch capabilities like those SpaceX is offering. To the defense community, mission assurance is the key and they want launch vehicles with a proven track record. Klinger said DOD would “apply competition when and where it makes sense.”

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