Speeding Up Space

Feb. 26, 2018

The first Operationally Responsive Space satellite, ORS-1, successfully launched from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia in 2011. Photo: NASA

Air Force leaders have sounded a consistent warning in recent years: The National Security Space enterprise must accelerate the way it acquires new systems. Space has become a combat domain, they say, and adversaries are building the means to rapidly take offensive action in orbit. The US, in turn, must be ready to counter such action just as quickly.

“I really see a need to go fast” in acquisition, said Gen. John W. “Jay” Raymond, commander of Air Force Space Command (AFSPC) at the 33rd Space Symposium in April 2017.

Responding to this situation demands that USAF develop and launch resilient capabilities more efficiently, and space leaders believe a Rapid Capabilities Office focused on space is likely the best way to do it.

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Experience with space defense programs over the past decades has been a harsh teacher, as some major programs have soared over budget and missed deployment by years. The GPS III’s next generation operational ground control system, known as OCX, is one of the more infamous examples. Even when OCX Block 0 was finally delivered to the Air Force in November 2017, Space and Missile Systems Center commander Lt. Gen. John F. Thompson called it “a historically troubled program.”

Other major space programs, such as the Space Based Infrared System and the Advanced Extremely High Frequency satellite, have struggled, but hit closer to their acquisition targets. Overall, the military space sector has actually delivered many more new systems and capabilities through its recent modernization efforts than other parts of the Air Force portfolio, such as nuclear forces. However, it hasn’t been cheap, and it certainly hasn’t been quick.

“Over the last 10 to 15 years, there’s been a massive recapitalization of space assets,” said William A. LaPlante, former assistant secretary of the Air Force for acquisition and now a senior vice president at the MITRE Corporation. He told Air Force Magazine even successful programs required “between one and two decades” to develop from start to finish.

“We can’t do that,” in a contested space environment, he said. “We have to change.”

For the US to keep pace with its adversaries, the bar must be set higher than simply avoiding acquisition nightmares like OCX. The Air Force also needs to build greater urgency into the programs that go according to plan.

“When we had unquestioned superiority, you could probably do the exquisite analysis for two or three years, development for five to 10 years, and then put up your GPS or your AEHF satellites,” said LaPlante. “We don’t have that superiority any more. The speed of technology change and potential adversaries just means we’ve got do it differently.”

Technicians work on TacSat-2 at the Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia in 2006. Photo: USAF


During his tenure in the USAF acquisition shop, which ended in November 2015, LaPlante became convinced that the service needed “a Rapid Capabilities Office … that would be dedicated solely to space.” He had helped shepherd the Long-Range Strike Bomber program (later dubbed the B-21 Raider) into the Air Force RCO and realized the advantages of such an approach.

The RCO has been successful, LaPlante said, because “it’s an acquisition organization” unto itself. “It has all the full aspects of a program executive officer,” he said. That means that RCO Director and Program Executive Officer Randall G. Walden has access to “a full set of cost estimators, access to analytics and scientists at places like MITRE and Lincoln Labs,” as well as “expert contracting officers themselves, people who were experts in manufacturing.”

Just as important in maintaining the RCO’s efficiency is its “Washington presence,” LaPlante said.

The RCO is based at JB Anacostia-Bolling, in Washington, D.C., and quick access to Department of Defense and congressional leadership is crucial in making acquisition fast. “We could work the budget, the acquisition strategy, and requirements and get it done in a week,” LaPlante said. If an issue began to develop requiring program changes, RCO leaders could go “right to the Hill and sit down with the staffers.”

Though it sounds like something geared to quick-and-dirty projects for urgent needs, RCO is scaled to accommodate major programs, LaPlante said. “It develops real capabilities: not one-offs, but in numbers,” he said.

William LaPlante, USAF’s former acquisition chief, at AFA’s Air Warfare Symposium in 2015. Both he and Gen. John Raymond say speed in developing space assets is becoming evermore critical. Photo: Scott Ash/USAF


Even so, Air Force attempts to speed up space procurement have found success to be elusive. In 2007, the service stood up an Operationally Responsive Space office at Kirtland AFB, N.M. ORS specialized in producing “one-offs.” Reporting to the Space and Missile Systems Center, it has worked to develop experimental satellites outside of the major satellite constellation modernization programs.

“The missions and the problems they were given were sort of on the periphery of important national security space problems,” said LaPlante. The ORS office’s funding reflects this. In Fiscal 2017, its total budget was only $17.9 million, said an SMC spokesman.

“There’s no way that an office the size of an ORS … would have the capabilities to do a bomber or do the equivalent of a bomber for space,” LaPlante said. “The ORS office had a very, very low profile, and I think it still largely does,” he added. “It really didn’t get the resourcing to do this job.” The ORS also “did not have the full set of capabilities the RCO had,” LaPlante noted. Consequently, “that sort of put them on the back-burner.”

If ORS is too small to handle major programs rapidly, then why not run major space acquisition programs through the Air Force RCO? It might actually work, LaPlante said, but the service would have to be careful not to create an overload.

“I’d be worried,” LaPlante said, “that if you take an office like the RCO … and you gave it more mission, you might actually kill what’s good about it.”He thinks the best solution would be to spin off a seperate RCO for the space enterprise. LaPlante said this was already evident during his time in the Pentagon, that “we needed for space a Rapid Capability Office … that would be dedicated solely to space,” instead of adding space programs to the current RCO’s load.

Despite its limitations, LaPlante thinks ORS is doing good work. Recently, he was “really impressed” with an ORS-developed space situational awareness asset that was “built and deployed within two-and-a-half years. If you could do that at scale … that would be great.”

In the 2018 National Defense Authorization Act, Congress may have paved the way for the Air Force to do exactly that. The bill changes the name of the ORS office to the Space Rapid Capabilities program. The legislation also establishes ORS/SRC responsibility directly to AFSPC, at Peterson AFB, Colo., instead of SMC which is based at Los Angeles AFB, Calif.

Gen. John Raymond, commander of Air Force Space Command, speaks to ROTC cadets at Clemson University in August. Photo: SSgt. Ken Scar

The shift represents more than “just a name change,” Raymond said at an Air Force Association Mitchell Institute event in Washington, D.C., on Dec. 8. The move by Congress represents “a change in capabilities and capacity to get after what we need to do, and that’s to go fast,” Raymond said.

LaPlante agrees. “It sounds like it’s going more toward the beginnings of what an RCO model is,” he said. The reporting shift is most important, he noted, because “the owner of the space requirements … is the four-star at Air Force Space Command.” This move could herald others that would give SRC a set of acquisition capabilities that more closely emulate those of the RCO.

“My goal,” said Raymond, “is to bring ORS capabilities more broadly across Space and Missile Systems Center and not just use them for little niche capabilities.” How far and how fast the transformation goes—and how much more funding the Space Rapid Capabilities office will receive—remains to be seen, but Raymond is making it clear that, when it comes to speeding up space procurement, he means business. And for now, Congress is willing to help.