The recently formed Space Acquisition Council wants to look at ways to apply digital engineering techniques that have been more prominently used in aviation programs to satellite manufacturing, the Air Force’s top acquisition leader said April 16.

Participants at the inaugural council meeting April 8 – comprising leaders of the U.S. Space Force, Air Force, National Reconnaissance Office, Missile Defense Agency and Space Development Agency – developed several action items related to how the Pentagon should alter its space acquisition processes, looking to build a common structure across each agency, said Will Roper, Air Force Assistant Secretary for Acquisition and Sustainment and the council’s current leader, in a teleconference with reporters.

“As a new body, we get to set what the ground rules are,” Roper said. The group spent a large amount of time discussing the concept of digital engineering, and how the Defense Department could bring the design and assembly technique into the satellite realm.

“Everyone’s really excited about it,” Roper added, noting that he planned to brief the rest of the council on programs in the Air Force portfolio that are utilizing digital twins to move more quickly through the design phase. “If we can do it for airplanes or missiles, we could do it for satellites too,” he noted.

More details about the council’s plans for new acquisition methods will be revealed in a forthcoming report to Congress, Roper noted. The report, which was originally due March 31, was delayed as the Pentagon responded to the COVID-19 pandemic and current sits with the secretary of defense, he said.

The report is “bold, as it should be,” Roper said. It focuses in large part on highlighting new authorities that space agencies will request from Congress to move more quickly in space systems development, and on consolidating the space portfolio into a small number of program elements within the defense budget, to more closely resemble the way the NRO or the MDA handles its portfolios.

“The way that the Air Force and now Space Force put their budget submission into Congress, it puts all of the programs into individual program elements, and that’s like walking the program into a little financial prison,” Roper said. “And if for whatever reason … whether you need money or you have money to give, it’s locked in that prison. So you’re not able to optimize what you do at a portfolio level, and so just that would be huge and revolutionary for space acquisition.”

Roper noted that the acquisition alternatives report is “less about the nuts and bolts of acquisition, and more about how you manage programs from a financial point of view.”

The council was stood up under the fiscal year 2020 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), which formally established the U.S. Space Force last December. The bill also created two new civilian positions, including an assistant secretary of defense for space policy to be the senior civilian in the Office of the Secretary of Defense overseeing space warfighting.

The second position would be re-designating the current principal assistant to the secretary of the Air Force on space to become a Senate-confirmed assistant secretary of the Air Force for space acquisition and integration position. This move more thoroughly separates out space-related procurement and developmental programs from the Air Force, and provides Congress with more oversight over the previous position.

That official, as the senior space architect, would take on Service Acquisition Executive responsibilities for space systems and programs starting Oct. 1, 2022. They would also oversee and direct the Space and Missile Systems Center at Los Angeles Air Force Base, the Space Rapid Capabilities Office at Kirtland AFB, New Mexico, and the nascent Space Development Agency currently operating out of the Pentagon.

Roper currently performs that role for all of the Air Force’s programs of record, and has previously spoken against separating out the two positions. He told reporters that the council intentionally decided not to address that topic at the April meeting since “it will be a tough choice for us to make.”

“We decided we might as well unify our efforts and ask for things that we agree on, use that unity of effort as a way to try to push things through that may be difficult to be granted,” he said. “We’re asking for a very different way to engage in space acquisition, especially on the financial side. … And then if the answer is, ‘Yes, you can have everything you’ve asked for,’ we probably think about organization differently than if we’re told, ‘You can’t have anything you asked for.’”