(Breaking Defense) The Air Force, eager to get inside the decision cycle of China and Russia, is pressing ahead hard and fast to substantially speed space acquisition.
In what is something of a test case for the service, Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson last night committed to building the next generation of missile warning satellites, OPIR, in five years. The existing SBIRS satellites, after years and years of delays and cost overruns, still take nine years to get into orbit.
To get the birds into space more quickly, Wilson told reporters before an after-dinner speech that they will use “known sensors” and a commercial satellite bus. On top of those capabilities, Wilson said they “may have” defensive capabilities, carry more fuel and and more maneuverable so they can fight (defensively) in space if the need arises.
This is clearly a new standard for American military satellites: build them so they can defend themselves. Why? As Wilson put it in her speech here: “We built exquisite glass houses in a world without stones.” Today, the Russians and Chinese are building stones and appear ready to use them.
Another key to achieving this will be substantial change to how Space and Missile System Center, the people who buy the Air Force’s satellites and related launch systems, does its job. Wilson told me they will break apart the familiar vertical stovepipes — which govern position and timing, space superiority, and remote sensing — and create a new structure. There will be a production corps and a development corps that will function across multiple programs, she said.
The initial reorganization will be done by October, Wilson said.
Why is the Air Force trying to get these sophisticated satellites into space in five years?
Will Roper, new head of Air Force acquisition and former leader of the Pentagon’s Strategic Capabilities Office, told reporters it is “aggressive goal,” one they set because things wouldn’t happen faster unless, in effect, they said they would. He made clear we’ll see more such stuff goals set for Air Force acquisition programs. Prototyping should help get these birds into space more quickly, he said. That will help weed out the incompetent and the slow. “We want to not be afraid,” he said. Of course, my self and a host of other reporters and congressional aides and erstwhile experts will be watching closely, ready to point fingers should this not happen.
Bear in mind that it’s not entirely clear when those five years start– after companies build prototypes and the Air Force picks a winner or….?
But the senior Air Force officials really are trying to change what they see as an often crippling culture that punishes failure and spend years trying to figure out why something failed, instead of just fixing it and getting on with things.
On top of the SMC changes, a new office is being stood up to work with Roper to “rewire” the acquisition system and make current procedures, that require dodging the slower bits of the acquisition system, standard practice. It will “work with program managers to identify areas for streamlining and improvement,” an Air Force statement says.
“Their job,” Wilson said in her speech, “is not to buy things but to change the Pentagon rules on how we buy things so that speed is possible.”
Will these changes blow my or others socks off, as Secretary Wilson boldly claimed? Let’s hope so.
By COLIN CLARK for Breaking Defense
on April 18, 2018 at 4:00 AM