If the Air Force is to harness cheap satellites and reusable rockets, it must transform a risk-averse bureaucracy built for a different era.
The U.S. Air Force’s space acquisition model—fundamentally risk-adverse, oriented towards big, expensive, complex system—worked when national power was built by launching a single billion-dollar satellite every six months. In a world with cheap satellites and reusable rockets, it is no longer sufficient.
If we want to take advantage of new capabilities, we can’t rely on today’s ponderous certification and government overhead processes. Fortunately, the Air Force’s senior leadership clearly recognizes the benefits of more agile, flexible, and rapid procurement. The problem is that this attitude isn’t filtering down to the bureaucracy fast enough. There’s no silver bullet; the answer will be collective reform from multiple angles. Here are a few.
The Air Force’s Federally Funded Research and Development Centers (FFRDCs), which are responsible for “mission assurance,” need to truly go fast – not recklessly or by cutting corners, but by simply going faster. The Air Force itself has the power to do this: by changing the contracts, requirements, and compliance documents the service can and should minimize unnecessary and outdated items that were purpose-built for a different era. The Air Force must mandate that the FFRDCs work to tighter timelines. It must review the regulations and oversight frameworks and eliminate unnecessary compliance requirements that add work, but not value.
Simultaneously, the Air Force, and its technical advisors, need to improve their processes to efficiently consume these data. Partnerships between launch providers and the Air Force need to adopt a left-seat, right-seat mentality, sitting side-by-side (when appropriate) to review performance data and address issues on a rolling basis. The launch partners want to work with the Air Force and stand ready to do so. Indeed, SpaceX, Blue Origin, and others are generating volumes of data on the performance and capabilities of their rockets.
It is not as if these companies are operating in a vacuum with no risk oversight. Commercial purchasers of launch—sophisticated buyers and their insurers—are satisfied with the performance and signing up for launches, shown by SpaceX’s capture of over 60 percent of the global commercial launch market in 2018.
Getting to this level of comfort requires a fundamental culture shift at the U.S. Air Force and within the space enterprise. The Air Force understands reusability. They do it every day, although they may not think about it that way. They fly hundreds of aircraft every day on training missions and day-to-day operations. Each of these aircraft have maintenance checks that detail at X number of hours such and such is done. thus ensuring that the vehicles are airworthy and capable of flight.
We need to get to the same point with reusable rockets. SpaceX’s Block 5 boosters of the Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy are expected to fly at least 10 times. Blue Origin’s New Glenn is expected to fly multiple times as well. If we treat each of these rockets as new vehicles each time, costs will increase and the advantages of using reusable rockets will be thrown away.
If we can succeed here, changing the culture and mentality, and improve the certification process, we can change the government’s overhead parameters as well. Under the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) program, every payload is treated as “exquisite”. That’s just silly. There is a big difference between a luxury Cadillac and a Toyota Camry, yet under the Air Force’s “mission assurance” parameters, they are treated the same.
We also, and critically, need to change the acquisition culture. New capabilities offer new risks, but also new opportunities. The Air Force program and contracts managers need to know that their leadership has their back. They need to know that if they fail but fail smartly their leadership will defend them and support them.
This also requires getting Congress to support the Secretary of the Air Force and the service’s senior leadership. If there are failures, and undoubtedly there will be— it is rocket engineering, after all—it is not some massive scandal or an opportunity for point-scoring.
Those same contracts officers need to know and understand the authorities they already have. This requires better training as a first step and regular promotion of effective contracts officers based on program success, not arbitrary compliance metrics.
America’s greatest military engineering programs could not have succeeded in today’s environment. Gen. Bernard Schriever, the father of the Air Force’s missile and space program would never have succeeded if his leadership didn’t support him and Congress didn’t appreciate the mission and its complexity. Adm. Hyman Rickover could not have developed the nuclear Navy if his program managers didn’t feel empowered to take smart risks.
Changing the culture, changing the mindset, and changing the bureaucracy takes time, something we don’t have. Failing to go fast, smartly, now will cede the long-term advantages of space to our adversaries. That is something we as taxpayers and citizens can’t afford.