Rapid re-reprogramming through portfolio management would retain congressional insight into space programs and oversight of them, a leading U.S. Air Force official said last week.

Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Space Acquisition and Integration Shawn Barnes said on July 30 that “being able to manage both requirements and dollars at the portfolio level allows us to make good, smart trades and ends up being a much better use of the taxpayers’ dollars.”

“I will always have programs in year of execution that are under-performing, and I will have programs that are over-performing, and, if in the year of execution, at a portfolio level, I’ve got the ability to manage some dollars in a transparent way, it allows quick and rapid corrections to challenges that are out there,” he said. “If we take the approach that we historically have, it will take six or eight months to get money moved from one thing to another, and I can’t take advantage of the speed that’s necessary to fix some things quickly. I think that ends up being a poor use of taxpayer money.”

Barnes is performing the duties of the assistant secretary of the Air Force (ASAF) for Space Acquisition and Integration until a nominee is identified and confirmed by the Senate.

In May, the Air Force took back an Alternative Acquisition System for the U.S. Space Force report to Congress within a day of its submittal as draft, and not final. That report said that consolidating Budget Line Items (BLIs) to manage U.S Space Force (USSF) “space programs at portfolio levels is the most important recommendation in this report.”

“The primary benefits are enabling rapid responses to emergent threats in the year of execution that drive a need for realignment of funds and increasing overall space purchasing power through more efficient financial management at the portfolio level,” the report said, adding that the Air Force “should consolidate BLIs based on mission portfolios (e.g. Missile Warning and Defense, Communications and Navigation, Offensive Space Control, Defensive Space Control, Launch and Mission Support).”

On July 30, Barnes suggested that the portfolio approach would allow congressional oversight of specific programs despite the absence of Program Element (PE) numbers.

“When you get below the program element level, there’s a number of ways that you can still show that money in different lines, if they’re not at the program element level, but at a subordinate level,” he said. “It’s not a matter of just, ‘Let me take a huge amount of money, put it into a single PE and just manage it.’ We would still be breaking it down at a subordinate level, but what we would hope is we’d have the ability to move money from one of those subordinate levels to another. That’s where we can have that transparency because we’d still come over and talk to them [members of Congress], explain the rationale, but what we would hopefully be predisposed to being able to [do is] make that move, as opposed to waiting for permission.”

The portfolio approach “ensures maximum budget execution flexibility to manage requirements across capability areas and space system architectures,” the Air Force’s draft report in May said. “OSD, OMB [Office of Management and Budget], and congressional defense committee equities, along with transparency at the program level, would be preserved through an appropriate coding structure below the legal limitation with supplemental reporting in addition to [Appropriation Status by FY Program and Subaccounts Accounting Report Monthly (AR(M)] 1002 reports. Authority to realign funding between Budget Program Activity Codes (BPACs) would be set at appropriate levels.”

The House Appropriations Committee is leery of the Air Force’s proposed portfolio approach, given the past abuse of re-programming procedures, and said that it believes a Senate-confirmed assistant secretary of the Air Force for space acquisition and integration is vital to the Space Force’s prospects.

Barnes said that the Air Force’s final version of the Alternative Acquisition System for the U.S. Space Force report is in the hands of OMB.

“We started drafting that from day one,” he said of the report. “It’s still not on the [Capitol] Hill. I’m a little frustrated by that, but I think we’re very close with OMB at this point, and I think we’re just about there. We’re in the process of figuring out how to implement those actions within the Alt Acquisition Report that don’t require any legislative change. Of the somewhat less than 10 of those specific actions, probably six of them are within the Department of Defense’s ability to get after so we’re building implementation plans for that.”

Barnes said that “how we talk about requirements and the need to be able to discus requirements on a portfolio basis is not something that requires legislation or that OMB has a hard time with so we’re working very closely with the Joint Staff on that to be able to better describe how we want to manage that.”

The Air Force’s proposed portfolio approach to allow rapid re-programming for the Space Force may face rough seas ahead, however.

“This current proposal appears to be an attempt to formalize the idea that it’s better to beg forgiveness than ask permission,” Dan Grazier, a retired Marine and the Jack Shanahan Military Fellow at the Center for Defense Information and the Straus Military Reform Project, wrote in an Aug. 3 email.

“With this they want to be able to move money around from program to program and then tell Congress what they did later,” Grazier wrote. “By that point, the money has already been spent so any objections raised would be largely moot. USSF officials could potentially push boundaries to the point that Congress would reduce their budget in the next budget cycle, but based on the current trajectory of the Pentagon’s budget, that seems like an unlikely scenario. It would be much better for the Space Force to pursue less risky programs in the first place while Congress retains control over its budget.”

In June, Grazier wrote an analysis that said that the portfolio approach “would mean that instead of asking Congress for funding for a single communications satellite program, as is the current practice for virtually all acquisitions, the Space Force would have a block of money allocated for all communications programs” so that “Space Force bureaucrats would be able to shift money from one program to another without Congress’ approval.

“The real reason the Space Force was created was to make it easier for contractors to sell things to the government,” Grazier wrote. “This acquisition program supports that effort.”

Barnes said that his office has held a number of space architecture summits to integrate and synchronize space programs across DoD, including the Space Development Agency, Missile Defense Agency and the National Reconnaissance Office, and that DoD has held six Space Acquisition Council meetings thus far on a variety of topics, including the state of space industrial base health in light of COVID-19; space threats; and the importance of digital engineering to space acquisition.

Integration of space efforts will be a significant part of the efforts of Barnes’ office.

“I tend to believe that of the two words, acquisition and integration, that the integration piece is actually the more important of them,” Barnes said. “That’s not to say we don’t want to improve upon acquisition, but there is a lot of money to be made on the integration piece so we’ve been focusing a fair bit on that.”

“We’ve also been collaborating with a number of companies to ensure that I understand what their challenges are with working with the government because I think that the government owes it to them to provide sort of a one-stop shop to help solve their challenges, Barnes said. “So they [companies] shouldn’t have to go to FAA and the Department of Transportation and the Department of Commerce and the Department of the Air Force/Space Force when they’re trying to run through the miasma of challenges to be able to do what they want to do.”