When it comes to government, “moving fast” doesn’t mean the same thing as it does in the private sector. To quote Senator John McCain:
“Even when the Defense Department is innovating, it is moving too slowly. Innovation is measured in 18-month cycles in the commercial market. The Defense Department has acquisition cycles that can last 18 years.”
As the Armed Services Committee and the Air Force debate whether an independent Space Corps is warranted, one thing is important to highlight: the Air Force needs the flexibility to develop, acquire, and sustain leading edge technology to execute future space warfare requirements. Sound like science-fiction? It’s not.
The time is now to spin off an entire category of military procurement from the shackles of DOD’s legacy Planning, Programming, and Budgeting System (PPBS) as well as Federal Acquisition Regulation (FAR) burdens in order to build new capacities and deploy new capabilities necessary to protect the nation’s space sovereignty.
Over the years, well intentioned defense reform efforts have littered the U.S. Code and Department of Defense’s (DOD) directives with numerous specialized acquisition authorities, most recently with the establishment of the Defense Innovation Unit Experimental (DIUx) initiative whose purpose is to link DOD with non-traditional suppliers. While the exercise is surely salutary, the endeavor is yet another example of an additive, sidebar authority that avoids tackling the underlying problem with DOD’s core acquisition functions.
Considering that DOD’s major acquisition organizations were established before production of the silicon chip, it is understandable that such bureaucracies would be more reliant on procurement processes than technology development and deployment. Resource intensive internal processes have hardened the barriers to imposing the dramatic change necessary.
However, on a positive note, the past five decades of robust Air Force and NASA investment have resulted in a truly viable, competitive, and innovative commercial industrial base. While not a stated national policy at the outset of our space program in 1958, the U.S. today has a private sector spacefaring advantage no other nation can boast.
In order to avoid the pitfalls of the past, an entirely distinct Air Force space acquisition organization is necessary. With responsibilities drawn from Special Operations Command’s independent procurement authority under Title 10 U.S. Code, coupled with the regulatory flexibility of the Space Act of 1958, this organization would place us back on track to assert a full spectrum U.S. space posture.
Additionally, requiring the organization to use Direct-Hire Authority for its civilian workforce would facilitate the recruiting of the best and brightest from academia, industry, and other government agencies. This personnel approach would provide leadership accountability, and would place a premium on results-driven outcomes similar to the private sector.
As noted by Sen. McCain in 2015, global research and development (R&D) is more than twice that of the United States, and Chinese R&D levels are projected to surpass the United States by 2022. And this innovation gap – ranging from propulsion systems, material science, nanotechnology, robotics, to autonomy – will be no more salient than in space.
Decades of failed attempts at defense acquisition reform have brought us to the inescapable conclusion that an entirely new, ground-up approach is needed.