Space acquisition review calls for cutting red tape, empowering acquisition chief


Frank Calvelli, Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Space Acquisition and Integration, speaks at the 2022 Air, Space & Cyber Conference. (Credit: AFA)

WASHINGTON — Improving Pentagon space acquisition does not require new legal authorities or further organizational consolidation, but does require a hard scrubbing of self-imposed red tape and giving Space Acquisition Executive Frank Calvelli more decision-making authority, finds a new study by the Defense Business Board (DBB).

“The acquisition apparatus used to deliver space capabilities in the past cannot be utilized in the same way to keep pace with the emerging threats of the future. … Sufficient acquisition authority exists within the DoD [Defense Department] but not all at the right place in the organization to maximize speed, innovation, flexibility, and assurance. More can be done to empower the Space Service Acquisition Executive (SAE),” the study, mandated by the 2023 National Defense Authorization Act, concludes.

“To be clear, the DoD acquisition system should not be abandoned, but it must endure more as a guide than the rule in the future,” the DBB report stresses, noting that there simply isn’t any option to start over from a “clean sheet.”

The DBB, which provides independent business management advice to DoD leadership, strongly recommends that both the National Reconnaissance Office and the Missile Defense Agency remain separate from the Space Force. While it may seem logical to put all the space-buying organizations under one leader, that could also “inadvertently” backfire by creating more bureaucracy and slowing down decision cycles.

In fact, the study blames many of the problems with space acquisition on the layers of review required for each step in the process, and the seemingly endless meetings required to just to “check boxes.”

“Non-value-added bureaucracy and approval levels distract acquisition professionals from their primary mission, increase decision-making timelines, stifle innovation, and contribute to a risk-averse culture,” the report chides.

The Process ‘Triumvirate’

Perhaps to no one’s surprise, the study heaps opprobrium on the Joint Capabilities Integration & Development System (JCIDS) process for setting military requirements, calling it “time-consuming” and “cumbersome.” The fact that it generally takes two years to develop a new requirement also “limits opportunities to leverage commercial innovation,” the study says, pointing out that the space acquisition agencies that have been freed from JCIDS — such as the NRO and the Space Development Agency — have been able to speed programs with success.

The JCIDS process is overseen by the Joint Requirements Oversight Council (JROC), headed by the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. For at least two years, the Joint Staff has been working on reforms designed to speed requirements development and put more “teeth” into the JROC’s ability to ensure those requirements are met by the services, which control the purse strings.

The DBB study recommends that Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin also direct the DBB itself to undertake a specific review “to determine options to reform the JCIDS requirements process to emphasize goals and outcomes in the context of a Warfighter’s mission and less-so in the context of hardware and software capabilities,” as well as to reform how analyses of alternatives are undertaken in order “to expedite access to ally and partner developmental technologies.”

However, the study notes that JCIDS is only one of a “triumvirate” of processes that all together create inevitable snarls for acquisition programs, and suggests that the other two — Defense Acquisition System (the DoD Directive 5000 rules) and the five-year Programming, Planning, Budgeting, and Execution (PPBE) exercise — also are ripe for reform.

Empowering the Space Acquisition Executive

The DBB report praises Calvelli’s efforts to challenge the “bureaucratic culture” by “reducing administrative burden, leaning out staff functions, and providing a clear vision and explicit goals for the workforce,” such as his space acquisition tenets. While acknowledging that “it is too early to measure” the results of those changes, study “recognizes the potential for these efforts  to bring positive change.”

At the same time, it recommends a number of changes to enhance his autonomy and authority. These include broadening his ability to utilize Middle Tier Acquisition and Other Transaction Authority, and more power to delegate decision-making downward to program executive officers (PEOs).

RELATED: Oversight or overkill? DoD faces new congressional order to detail Mid-Tier Acquisitions

The study further points out that at the moment, Calvelli’s decisions are reviewed and can be second-guessed by the Space Acquisition Council — which ironically he chairs. The council includes Air Force Undersecretary Gina Ortiz Jones, DoD Assistant Secretary for Space Policy John Plumb, NRO Director Chris Scolese, US Space Command head Gen. Jim Dickinson and Space Force chief Gen. Chance Saltzman. That review process should be stopped, the DBB says.

Funding Flexibility

The DBB report goes on to echo the long-standing complaint of insiders that “space acquisition professionals do not have the funding flexibility to enable them to optimally manage their programs or to adequately insert innovative technology.” To fix this, the study recommends a trio of reforms:

  • “There should be a ‘single color of money’ for space programs to eliminate the need for a reprogramming action due to space acquisition-unique situations.”
  • The threshold for reprogramming appropriations for both research and development and procurement programs should be raised from $10 million to $20 million to allow the Space Force “to redirect dollars more expediently.”
  • Calvelli should be allowed to establish a “Management Reserve” fund for each program “to be utilized for technology insertion, risk reduction, program acceleration, or corrective action” — a practice that is currently utilized by NRO.

Tightening Links Between Operators and Acquisition Officials

Finally, there is a “lack of communication and understanding between the operational and acquisition communities. The divide challenges the [Space Force] ability to expedite delivery of systems, products, and services to meet warfighter needs,” the DBB report asserts.

The study thus praises the September decision by Saltzman to create two prototype Integrated Mission Deltas (IMDs) — one for positioning, navigation and timing; one for electronic warfare — that bring operators from the service’s Space Operations Command together with acquisition pros at Space Systems Command responsible for managing sustainment funds. It goes on to recommend that the concept be evaluated in 24 months and “if found effective, expanded.”

Coincidently, Space Operations Command on Tuesday announced that after two months of operations, the new IMDs “are reporting emerging successes,” having found three areas where “critical improvements” have resulted: “synchronized testing to improve acquisition; increased response rate of intel assessments; and acceleration of operational effects.”

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