U.S. Air Force / Van Ha

3 Years or Less: Space Force’s 'Simple Formula' for Quicker Launches

“Our competitors seem to have figured out speed. It’s time we do the same,” said the assistant Air Force secretary for space acquisitions and integration.

The U.S. Space Force wants to shorten contract timelines to three years or less from start to launch, so it can build a space architecture that “can be counted on” in conflict.

The service will follow a “simple formula” to drive speed: build smaller systems, use existing technology and design, drive contract scope to three years or less, and use fixed-price contracts, according to an April 5 letter reviewed by Defense One written by Frank Calvelli, the Space Force’s assistant secretary for acquisition and integration.

This direction follows nine “space acquisition tenets” Calvelli outlined in an October letter telling the service’s acquisition officials to buy satellites via fixed-price contracts, so it’s incumbent on industry to deliver products on time and budget.

Few missions require the Space Force to build big satellites anymore, Calvelli said in the April letter, and the department must disaggregate larger systems into smaller systems across all orbits and leave its few “big juicy targets” in the past.

Calvelli’s letter comes just after the Space Development Agency launched its “Tranche 0” satellites on April 2—sending off 10 satellites from SpaceX’s Falcon 9 reusable, two-stage rocket. The department has touted the speed of this initial tranche, which took two and a half years from contract award to launch.

To move faster, Calvelli said the department must reduce non-recurring engineering, or NRE, which refers to any one-time costs to develop a new product, and use existing designs and technology to go faster. 

“Our current acquisition culture allows government and industry to drive onerous development of new technologies and a foundation for major systems acquisitions. This drives significant NRE on contract, prolongs program schedules, and often prompts cost-plus contracts. There was nothing wrong with this approach in the past, but now real threats in the space domain force a different solution,” the secretary said. 

And to bring in new technologies faster, the service must capitalize on government and industry research and development—for example, Calvelli said they should leverage commercial “satellite buses,” essentially the body of the satellite, rather than build new ones. 

Calvelli emphasized that the Space Force needs “program baseline stability”—which it can get by shortening contract timelines and using fixed-price contracts. 

“Baseline instability is caused by rethinking and modifying program scope each budget season, changing requirements, long undefinitized contract actions, annual cost re-estimating on cost-plus contracts, and using multiple contract actions to develop a single class of satellites,” the memo said. 

Fixed-price contracting adds a “level of discipline” and promotes competition from non-traditional space companies, he said. 

“Our competitors seem to have figured out speed. It’s time we do the same,” Calvelli said.