The military’s two-month-old Space Force is on trajectory for major growth but the Pentagon is still weighing an overhaul of how it buys and develops the hardware needed.
Past programs have suffered from poor planning and bureaucracy amid threats from adversaries, lawmakers and a former top space adviser say. That prompted the creation late last year of an Air Force office aimed at streamlining the Pentagon’s space acquisition plans to thwart China’s or Russia’s potential to blind or destroy the U.S. military in space. That top position remains vacant for now.
The Pentagon is requesting a boost in space funding in fiscal 2021 and plans to hand the Space Force a $15.4 billion budget with the vast majority for researching, developing and buying space capabilities. The department plans to send Congress a legislative proposal Feb. 20 that could include tweaks to acquisition procedures.
“We are trying to have a flatter organization, very thorough vetting, and a more streamlined process,” Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.), the chairman of the House Armed Services subcommittee that oversees space, said in an interview. Lawmakers will watch the acquisition changes and creation of Space Force “like a hawk,” Cooper said, comparing the service to a child the Air Force didn’t want born. Air Force Secretary Barbara Barrett and Gen. John Raymond, the Space Force uniformed leader, have publicly embraced the service.
The top recipient of Pentagon space contracts over the past four years was United Launch Alliance, a joint venture by Lockheed Martin Corp. and Boeing Co.that provides rockets to carry satellite payloads. The joint venture was awarded $6.6 billion and Lockheed alone won $3.6 billion in contracts, Bloomberg Government data show.
Another $2.7 billion also went to Aerospace Corp., a nonprofit space consulting firm where Barrett previously served as chairman of the board. Other companies such as Space Exploration Technologies Corp. and Northrop Grumman Corp., each of which won more than $700 million in space contracts since 2016, could benefit as the military reorganizes around space.
The Space Force was founded Dec. 20 in defense authorization bill for fiscal 2020 (Public Law 116-92) after two years of debate and support from President Donald Trump. The Air Force had handled about 80 percent of space operations and supporters hope moving those into a separate service will boost attention and progress.
The department has spent more than $16 billion on space hardware and services since fiscal 2016 and that is set to increase as space becomes a bigger priority, according to Bloomberg Government data.
The Pentagon’s fiscal 2021 budget request envisions a 28-percent increase in space spending, Vice Adm. Ron Boxall, a budget planner on the Joint Staff, told reporters this week. About $18 billion would go to the Space Force, the U.S. Space Command that was created last summer, and a raft of space systems, satellites and launches.
“It also provides a threefold increase in the Space Development Agency to field game-changing space technologies,” Boxall said.
The Space Force would get $15.4 billion of that. With a relatively small number of projected personnel still on Air Force payrolls, most of its budget could be pumped into capabilities: $10.3 billion for research, development, tests and evaluation, and $2.44 billion for procurement.
“The ultimate issue is space acquisition,” said Joshua Huminski, director of the national security space program at the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress.
The new service budget calls for three new space launch services. Top new programs include the next leg of a new control system for Global Positioning System satellites, called OCX, under prime contractor Raytheon Co. The GAO warned last year that the system has been delayed five years and further delays are likely.
The service budget request also calls for further development of a single computer system to operate military satellites and space systems, called Space Command and Control, or Space C2. Space C2 faces a “number of challenges and unknowns” including management issues and technical complexity, according to the GAO.
“They are also not certain about the best way to provide oversight of these programs but are considering using assessments by external experts,” the watchdog agency wrote.
Countering China, Russia
The Pentagon has focused on going faster when it comes to countering China and Russia and expanding space capabilities. Problems are rooted in poor planning and design work, according to John Stopher, who was the top space adviser to former Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson.
The Pentagon has been wrestling with how to plug gaps in its weather data collected from space, with several programs started and terminated over the past decade, Stopher told Bloomberg Government.
“Any time the word ‘gap filler’ is used it should raise a red flag that the planning, programming, budgeting, and execution process is broken,” he wrote in an email.
Space-based infrared surveillance efforts faced similar setbacks, with programs jettisoned for a new approach meant to be more efficient and cheaper, but instead led the Pentagon to shift billions of dollars to keep on schedule, said Stopher, a senior fellow at the Prague Security Studies Institute.
Pulling the burgeoning space efforts together is now the job of the new Air Force assistant secretary for space acquisition and integration, a position created by the defense bill that requires Senate confirmation. The office is in charge of the design and integration of all Air Force department space systems and programs. It’s also supposed to oversee the Space Development Agency with its growing budget, the Space and Missile Systems Center in California that is designing the troubled computer system, and the Space Rapid Capabilities Office, created in 2017 to field new technology faster.
In another effort to coordinate the programs, the defense bill created a Space Force Acquisition council that will be led by the assistant secretary and include Barrett and Raymond.
A nominee for the position has yet to be announced almost two months after Barrett said she had a list of potential candidates being vetted. The Space Force council is set to meet for the first time this month and without a chairman will be temporarily led by Will Roper, the Air Force assistant secretary for acquisition, technology and logistics.
Questions also remain about the three space agencies and the oversight role of the Air Force assistant secretary, especially when it comes to the Space Development Agency. That agency remains outside the Air Force under the office of Michael Griffin, the undersecretary for research and engineering.
The Pentagon’s legislative proposal could be aimed at clarifying the Air Force assistant secretary’s oversight. The department could ask for changes that move the space acquisition system closer to the National Reconnaissance Office, which fields and manages U.S. spy satellites and has been held up by Cooper and others in Congress as a space success story, a defense official said.
Shawn Barnes, a deputy to the Air Force’s top space adviser, has been spearheading the bill’s acquisition changes for the service while the assistant secretary office is vacant. His top goal for the next six months is getting approval of a single department-wide design for space-based elements of missile warning and missile defense, a top priority for the Space Development Agency, Barnes said in an interview.
All three space agencies will go under the microscope as Barnes and defense officials search for overlap and decide where competition or alternative approaches might help, he said.
“There will be a review,” Barnes said. “We’ve already begun this effort.”
The Space Development Agency, with a proposed fiscal 2021 budget of $336 million, is collaborating with Barnes on the review, said Jennifer Elzea, the agency’s spokeswoman. Griffin created it a year ago to speed work on space tracking of hypersonic weapons and a layer of communication satellites. The Pentagon plans eventually to fold the agency into the Space Force.
Huminski said the ultimate success of the efforts to improve space spending could depend on finding the right person to serve as the assistant secretary. A potential pitfall is the confirmation of someone who is a poor fit, which could set back efforts by months or years.
“There is a great opportunity to drive some change now,” Huminski said.
With assistance from Robert Levinson
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