WASHINGTON: Of all the moving and shaking (not to mention shenanigans) likely to happen next year in military space, acquisition reform will be the one key topic to keep the keenest eyeballs on. As is often the case in governance, process will be a big factor in setting policy.
Change is being set in motion now by Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall, who is no stranger to Defense Department acquisition problems. How fast and how far those changes will go is anyone’s guess, especially as Congress will need to be firmly on board for anything at all to happen. And up to now, the Department of the Air Force has not always acquitted itself well with Capital Hill in regard to transparency.
In particular, acquisition reform will be needed to allow what will be, under the best of circumstances, a painful and expensive overhaul of the Pentagon’s satellite and space system architecture aimed at reducing long understood vulnerabilities that have been essentially ignored for many years.
[This article is one of many in a series in which Breaking Defense reporters look back on the most significant (and entertaining) news stories of 2021 and look forward to what 2022 may hold.]
To build a resilient force structure, Space Force leaders want to develop what they are calling a “hybrid architecture,” mixing small constellations of large, exquisite and expensive military satellites with large constellations of smaller, less costly-but-still-bespoke satellites dispersed into a variety of orbits. Creating that architecture — which would include commercial space systems and services — will not be easy, nor cheap. If it was, even the hidebound and byzantine space acquisition bureaucracy would have done it already.
One factor that will set the direction of future acquisition and the pace of movement toward resilience is the fate of the Space Development Agency. By law, SDA has to be integrated into the Space Force (it was created under DoD’s Research & Engineering office) by Oct. 1, 2022. The questions will be how that integration actually ends up happening.
In particular, new space acquisition executive and former NRO deputy Frank Calvelli (assuming he is confirmed) will need to manage SDA’s approach to rapidly iterating prototypes for new satellites and ground systems, while at the same time figuring out how to turn those prototype systems into “real-boy” programs of record without stifling that innovation. And of course, the 2023 budget for SDA will be an indicator of which way the wind is blowing.
Another touch point for determining how serious Space Force is about resiliency will be the effort to develop new missile satellites under the Next Generation Overhead Persistent Infrared (Next-Gen OPIR) program. Budgeted at $14.5 billion through 2025, the program already faces congressional skepticism, even as Space Systems Command ponders whether to change course and augment the currently planned constellation of five birds — three in Geosynchronous Orbit (GEO) and two in elliptical polar orbits — with a set of satellites in Low and/or Medium Earth Orbit.
A related question is how Next-Gen OPIR fits in with SDA’s plans for new missile warning/tracking satellites in LEO (carrying a sensor developed by the Missile Defense Agency) that can better keep tabs on highly maneuverable hypersonic missiles. Figuring out the future missile warning and tracking architecture was the first effort of the new Space Warfighting Analysis Center (SWAC), but the results remain classified. The fiscal year 2023 budget request, hopefully, will provide some clues.