The Air Force has traditionally handled the lion’s share of U.S. military space assets and operations. But costs for major programs ballooned over the years, and the United States has found itself in a resumed Cold War in space with adversaries like China and Russia. Lawmakers on Capitol Hill, and eventually policymakers in the White House under then-President Donald Trump, called for a greater emphasis on the final frontier.
In 2019, the U.S. Defense Department (DoD) established three new DoD entities meant to impact space acquisition, and more quickly bring such capabilities to life — the U.S. Space Force, Space Development Agency (SDA), and Space Capabilities Office (RCO). But it may yet be too early to tell whether these new agencies will truly speed up satellite builds and technology development.
The U.S. Space Force, a separate military branch under the Department of the Air Force, would provide space leaders with their own budget line, and a greater voice with a seat on the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
The Space Development Agency (SDA) rapidly fields new space-based capabilities, by accepting less mature technologies for demonstration purposes. Plans are in place for the SDA to fold into the Space Force in 2022, but for now, it’s housed in the Pentagon while it designs, builds and operates the DoD’s forthcoming proliferated Low-Earth-Orbit (LEO) constellation.
The Space Rapid Capabilities Office (RCO) was created at Kirtland Air Force Base, New Mexico, to quickly develop and field a largely classified portfolio of cutting-edge technologies. The organization’s lean structure, short chain of command, speed of decision, and relative independence have all contributed to its success so far, says Michael Roberts, Space RCO director. In just over two years, the office has awarded over 40 contracts with around a dozen contracting officials.
There’s no “one-size-fits-all” approach for rapid acquisition, Roberts says. “While yes, there’s pressure across the department to go faster ... that doesn’t mean that every acquisition needs to go at the same speed,” he says. “We have a unique mission of developing operational capability that addresses time-sensitive critical needs.”
Time is certainly of the essence. Nations around the globe have witnessed — and taken part in — a proliferation of counter-space technologies, Brian Weeden, director of program planning at the Secure World Foundation, explained during a June virtual conference hosted by the media outlet Defense One.
While there was a brief pause in anti-satellite tests and other activity after the end of the Cold War, “what we’ve seen over the last 15 years is a resumption of testing those kinds of technologies,” Weeden said.
The Space Force was established to meet those challenges and renewed competition in space. The Air Force provided space capabilities to the joint military force for decades, and very effectively, Gen. David “DT” Thompson, Space Force vice chief of space operations, said in a July virtual conference hosted by the Air Force Association’s Mitchell Institute.
“The game changer that really drove the creation of the Space Force was the threats that we face, the fact that we now have to defend and protect those capabilities we provide, and look at how we deny the space capabilities of others,” Thompson said.
Two years in, the service is working multiple lines of efforts. Leaders spent the first year crafting a brand new fighting force out of space-specific Air Force elements, and developing a doctrine. The fiscal year 2021 DoD budget request to Congress marked the first time space and air programs were separated from each other. Leaders must also figure out how the Space Force will both interact with, and integrate parts of, its sibling services.
“Frankly, that's a huge task in and of itself, to try and get a handle on,” Weeden said.
Several tangible efforts to change the way the military procures new space systems are in the works. The Air and Space Force’s main acquisition hub, the Space and Missile Systems Center (SMC) at Los Angeles Air Force Base, just underwent a major reorganization.
On August 13, 2021, the Space Force established Space Systems Command (SSC), with SMC serving as its headquarters and several current Air Force units transferred in, to include the military launch enterprise, ground radar and early domain awareness offices, and DoD space wings located in California and Florida. SMC previously counted about 6,000 personnel, but that number will grow to up to 11,000 once the new command is stood up, the Space Force previously announced.
The Space Systems Command (SSC) development is expected to continue ongoing acquisition reform efforts that have taken place under the moniker “SMC 2.0.” That effort was “the first major step to flatten the organization and put decision-makers closer to the programs to improve decision speed, and more rapidly deliver capability,” says Col. David Learned, acting director of the SMC portfolio architect directorate.
Several space-based programs for missile warning and satellite communication have already progressed faster as a result of those efforts, Learned notes. “[The streamlined SMC 2.0] has resulted in a 60-plus percent reduction in the time required to make major program milestone decisions, and we are seeing results,” he says.
Throughout the transition from SMC to SSC, industry partners have found the process to be organized and free of drama or chaos, says Tory Bruno, president and CEO of United Launch Alliance (ULA). The wider U.S. military, across all of these new space offices, has taken “a more integrated look at the overall [space] architecture,” Bruno says.
“The threats in space are fairly intense … and getting more complicated every single day,” he notes. While space development programs were traditionally more siloed into a launch effort, a spacecraft effort, and even separate orbits and functions within the spacecraft effort, the mindset across DoD has become increasingly holistic, he adds.
“If we're going to meet this challenge, we really have to see this as a single integrated problem, … and optimize the whole, not the pieces,” Bruno says. “I see a lot more of that thinking present now in the Space Force.”
The progress of reforming space acquisition will be overseen by a whole new roster of officials within the Air Force and Space Force.
While debating the standup of the Space Force, members of Congress warned against adding any more bureaucrats or “gold brass” officers. But legislators did approve the creation of a new Service Acquisition Executive (SAE) position within the Space Force, who would coordinate with the Air Force SAE on space-related efforts, and oversee the SDA, the Space RCO, and the Space Systems Command program areas.
Members of Congress expressed concern over the lag in filling this position, which by law must be filled by October 2022. At a May hearing hosted by the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense, Chair Rep. Betty McCollum, D-Minn., said she was “very concerned about the lack of progress with fixing these long-standing problems with space acquisition.” At press time, no such appointments have been made.
Meanwhile, Congress has confirmed or is considering the nomination of several officials who will play critical roles in the way space acquisition is handled into the future. Former DoD acquisition czar Frank Kendall was confirmed in July as the next Air Force secretary, and the Biden administration nominated Andrew Hunter, a longtime defense procurement expert, to lead the Air Force acquisition portfolio.
At the same time, the U.S. military is losing one longtime space acquisition leader this summer, as SMC Commander Lt. Gen. John “JT” Thompson retired in late July. Thompson, the longest-serving SMC commander, directed and oversaw the SMC 2.0 effort, and helped to lay the groundwork for the standup of Space Systems Command.
The Biden administration’s pick to lead the forthcoming SSC, Maj. Gen. Michael Guetlein, most recently served as the deputy director of the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO), which has utilized its own, distinct acquisition processes to develop, build, and launch national intelligence satellites.
The Pentagon’s fiscal year 2022 budget request released in late May clearly emphasizes space-based efforts. In total, the Biden administration requested about $15.4 billion for space procurement and research-and-development.
Consulting firm Avascent called national security space the clear winner of the proposed budget. According to a June report, the entire segment grew nearly 20 percent annually between fiscal years 2017 and 2020. However, classified space programs remained the single biggest growth driver, accounting for about 44 percent of the $1.9 billion increase in procurement and R&D spending for the Space Force.
Weeden says he would have liked to see more details in the budget proposal about how the Space Force will make its systems more resilient to future warfighting — but many of those details are classified. “This is why it’s really hard to judge whether or not [the Space Force] is actually making the investments that they need to make,” he tells Via Satellite.
The overclassification of such programs is one of the largest challenges the DoD must tackle to streamline space acquisition, says John Ferrari, retired Army two-star general and visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.
When the Space Force was formed, Ferrari served as the Army’s resource programmer, representing the service for all joint military decision-making, from satellite procurements to shipbuilding. Prior to the Space Force, there was no lack of people advocating for space requirements, he says.
“[The challenge was] that there were so many space requirements, that nobody could actually make sense out of them,” he continues. Lowering the classification level of many space programs would go a long way toward boosting collaboration across the military — and intelligence community — space agencies, he argues.
Space Force leaders have acknowledged the limitations of classified portions of the space portfolio, and a declassification effort is reportedly in the works. Thompson said the military space community was built up in a very self-contained and narrow fashion, where there was little drive or requirement to disclose anything about the technology being developed.
“That culture has continued on for so long — for too long,” he said at the July conference noting that the service is committed to “really start breaking some of those shackles that we put ourselves in.”
Debate continues across the Pentagon as to when — or whether — the new, agile agencies like the SDA and the Space RCO should fold into the Space Force and the nascent Space Systems Command, respectively. Roberts wants his office to maintain some autonomy from the greater acquisition outfit, saying, “SMC has made great strides in cutting out red tape, unnecessary documentation, streamlining processes, and I applaud them for that.”
But each agency has its own mission to fulfill, and there’s less overlap across priority areas than outsiders might assume, he notes. “We have a specialized, restricted and unique mission — that’s governed by law ... of rapidly developing classified space capabilities that tackle” critical requirements, he says. “It’s that independence, and all that comes with it, that actually allows us to fulfill that mission in operationally relevant timelines.”
Meanwhile, the original legislation that created the Space Force designated that Army and Navy space programs would eventually be folded into the new service, and the service began that consolidation process in June. But the separate branches should maintain some flexibility to procure space assets, Ferrari says.
“If the Army wants to throw up 1,000 LEO satellites to do communications, they should be allowed to,” he says, noting that the secretary of the Air Force — as the leader of the overall department that houses both the Air Force and Space Force — is still the acquisition leader for most DoD space assets.
Bringing all of the space acquisition under one roof could reduce the potential benefit of competition for various systems, and could even lead to a monopoly, Ferrari asserts.
What actually needs to change is “the business model of launching these hugely expensive multi-year satellites, in an era where … technology is changing every two to four years,” he says. “And if the Space Force can figure out how to stop that, then it will prove its mettle.”
Observers agree that it’s difficult to grade the Space Force’s success at reforming acquisition after only a couple of years.
“The point a lot of us who were critical of the Space Force were making was [that] it’s going to be five to 10 years before we know whether this is a good idea,” Weeden says.
Ferrari applauds the Defense Department for taking the plunge to create a new Space Force, even though it’s too soon to tell how much the separation will actually change space acquisition.
“The current service structure was set up post-World War II. … It can’t be that that structure is the right structure” for 2021, Ferrari says. The creation of a new service is in itself a kind of DoD experiment, one that the department will continue to learn from, as the Space Force builds itself up.
“We should not say, ‘The Space Force doesn’t work.’” he says.
As the U.S. government tracks increased Chinese activity around the Moon, a major priority for the nascent Space Force will be to design a new system architecture for the vast area past Geostationary Orbit (GEO), onto and even beyond the Earth’s only natural satellite.
The Defense Department’s latest budget request includes $221 million in research-and-development funding for future space launch investments, including novel capabilities to support “multi-modal operations in diverse orbital regimes (e.g. beyond Lunar, cis-Lunar, trans-Lunar, and LaGrange Points),” per a government request for information.
In May, the Air Force Research Laboratory debuted the Space Warfighting Operations Research and Development (SWORD) Laboratory under its Space Vehicles directorate, to better integrate R&D programs into future warfighting efforts. “Above-GEO space domain awareness” will be one of SWORD’s main focus areas, said Air Force Col. Eric Felt, who leads the Space Vehicles directorate at Kirtland Air Force Base, New Mexico.
“There’s a large volume of space between the GEO belt and the Moon that we need to maintain space domain awareness of what’s going on out there,” he noted during a June virtual technology conference hosted by Defense One.
SWORD has launched at least two programs that focus on cislunar orbit research, and are mapping out the potential system architecture that the U.S. Space Force would need to field in that orbit to be able to track any activities, Felt said. VS
Vivienne Machi is an award-winning reporter based in Stuttgart, Germany. Her writing has appeared in outlets including Foreign Policy, Defense News, Defense Daily, Via Satellite, and National Defense Magazine. Twitter: @VivienneMachi