For nearly six months, a final report on an Alternative Acquisition System for the U.S. Space Force has been stuck in an “interagency” coordination netherworld, including with officials at the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB).
The National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal 2020, P.L. 116-92 directed the secretary of the U.S. Air Force “to provide to the congressional defense committees a report on whether and, if so, how to implement an alternative acquisition system, due not later than March 31, 2020.”
“The report should include an assessment of the feasibility of a new acquisition system specifically tailored for space systems and programs, including with respect to procuring space vehicles, ground segments relating to such vehicles, and satellite terminals,” per the report.
Changing the acquisition process to allow rapid fielding of new space technologies to counter what DoD has said is the grave threat posed by Russia’s and China’s space technology advances has been a top priority for U.S. Air Force Secretary Barbara Barrett and Chief of Space Operations Gen. John “Jay” Raymond.
“I’d like to say that we’ve got that [new acquisition process] resolved, but it’s not really resolved,” Barrett said on Oct. 28 in a virtual discussion with Raymond during the Space Foundation’s Space Symposium 365. “This is maybe the harshest fight there is and one of the most important fights there is. You can’t build technology on a slow, lethargic acquisition system. We’ve got to move fast.”
Raymond said that the 2018 National Defense Strategy “calls for us to compete, deter, and win in great power competition, and for us to be able to do that, as the secretary said, we have to go fast.”
The Alternative Acquisition System for the U.S. Space Force final report is “in the final stages” of coordination, Raymond said.
“There are a couple of themes that you’ll see,” he said. “One is we want have a little bit more flexibility in how we use resources, and we want to be able to delegate authority down to the lowest level. So, for example, just a few weeks ago we took what’s called the head of contracting authority from the Pentagon, and the secretary signed the letter and delegated that authority down to the acquisition experts [at Space and Missile Systems Center] in Los Angeles [AFB, Calif.] that do this work for a living–again, shortening that gap between approval authority and those that are actually doing the work. We do not want our program managers having to manage the Pentagon. We want our program managers managing programs.”
“What you’re going to see over the coming months is that we’re going to continue to delegate these authorities down,” he said. “The other thing that we’re doing is we have a slot at a table in the Space Force saying that digital engineering is going to be our model going forward so we’re going to embrace digital engineering as our standard. I would encourage industry to get on board and help us do that. We see huge opportunities to increase speed and reduce costs going forward.”
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 (Defense Daily, June 16). 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 draft 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).”
Congressional advocacy of such an alternative acquisition system for space rears up again in Section 807 of a report on the House version of the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal 2021, H.R. 6395. Section 807 authorizes the secretary of defense “to take actions to develop an acquisition pathway within the Department of Defense that is tailored for space systems and programs and would require a report on an ‘Alternative Space Acquisition System.’”
“This section would also authorize the secretary of the Air Force to assign an appropriate program executive as the milestone decision authority for major defense acquisition programs of the United States Space Force,” per the report.
Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Space Acquisition and Integration Shawn Barnes said in July 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.” (Defense Daily, Aug. 3). While traditional reprogramming has taken six to eight months to gain congressional approval and be implemented, rapid re-reprogramming through portfolio management would retain congressional insight into space programs and oversight of them, he said.
The House Appropriations Committee is leery of the Air Force’s proposed portfolio approach, given the past abuse of re-programming procedures. Indeed, the Air Force’s proposed portfolio approach to allow rapid re-programming for the Space Force likely faces a stiff challenge in Congress.
“This current [alternative acquisition] 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, said in August.
“With this they want to be able to move money around from program to program and then tell Congress what they did later,” per Grazier. “By that point, the money has already been spent so any objections raised would be largely moot.”