Air Force Reorganizes Space and Missile Systems Center to Speed Up Acquisitions

By Stew Magnuson
Los Angeles-based Space and Missile Systems Center

Photo: Air Force

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — Secretary of the Air Force Heather Wilson announced April 17 a reorganization of the service’s Los Angeles-based Space and Missile Systems Center, a move she said would pave the way for faster acquisitions of space assets.

The Air Force will demonstrate its ability to develop and field space systems quicker by shaving four years off the development timeline of the next-generation missile warning satellites, she said at the Space Symposium in Colorado Springs, Colorado.

The 2019 Air Force budget request cancelled the seventh and eighth space-based infrared satellites because service leaders didn’t believe the large satellites would survive an attack now that space is considered a warfighting domain. Building a more survivable version will be an opportunity to test a more nimble and faster acquisition regime, she said.

“The next-generation missile warning satellite will be a pacesetter and a pathfinder back to exceptional programs done at speed,” Wilson said. The cancelled seventh and eighth SBIRS would have taken nine years to design and produce. The goal is to reduce that satellite development timeline to five years, she said.

The reorganization of the center comes after criticism from lawmakers who are unhappy with the pace of space acquisition. They expressed their displeasure by proposing a space corps separate from the Air Force and took away the title of executive agent for space from the Air Force secretary.

The center will now have a “chief architect.” Wilson said that person will institute standards among currently stovepiped systems.

There will be two new offices: one dedicated to innovation and the other to partnerships and allies.

“If you are a program manager, you have almost no time to think about path-breaking innovation. We need people who are focused on innovation who don’t have responsibility to get programs out the door today,” she said.

The other office will deepen partnerships with multiple countries. In that regard, Wilson also announced that the Air Force will open up its space training courses to more allies. “Countries with allies thrive and those without allies, do not,” she said.

Another change is establishing a space office that will seek to change the acquisition regime. The unnamed office will report directly to assistant secretary of the Air Force for acquisitions, technology and logistics, who is currently William Roper. It will work with program managers to identify areas for streamlining and changing the way they do business, Wilson said.

Space and Missile Systems Center Commander Lt. Gen. J.T. Thompson is leading the reorganization, which is expected to reach initial operating capability by October, she added.

“All of this is intended to accelerate what we buy and also to buy things more smartly,” Wilson told reporters at a press conference. “It is not just about going faster at the program manager level, we have to rewire the diagrams at the Pentagon,” she said.

As for the next-generation missile warning satellites, Wilson said there are several ways the service can chop down the acquisition timeline. It will use common satellite buses and skip lengthy analyses of alternative studies.

Roper said: “Five years is an aggressive goal, but it is something I think you’re going to see not only in space, but all development,” he said. The program will use competitive prototyping. That increases competition and shaves off development time, he said.

“It determines who are the people who can really build on your schedule, who are the ones who can’t, and then you can pare down,” Roper said.

Ideally, it will take five years, but if the program discovered a problem along the way and it has to change the schedule “that’s what we are encouraging. We want to not be afraid of ... finding issues, fixing issues. If we’re going to get to building fast, failing fast we have to start doing it on programs that matter, and SBIRS follow-on matters,” Roper said.

When asked when exactly the clock starts ticking for this five-year goal, Roper said: “For me it starts once the program manager has the reins. The reins means they have a vendor they are working with. They are in control at that point. So we start the clock, we get working and build as quickly as we can.”

It was not clear if that included contracts for competitive prototyping he mentioned, or if it included the process for writing requirements, both of which can take several years and easily return the development timeline to nine years. Roper declined to take follow-up questions after the press conference. An Air Force spokesman later said the goal would be reached when the satellites were in orbit, but he could not clarify when the five-year process truly begins.

Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein said SBIRS follow-on satellites were cancelled because they were not defendable. The new spacecraft will be part of an architecture “that we will be able to defend,” he added.

“Right now, what we’re defending is more expensive than the cost of the attack. We have to flip that ... and change the cost curve,” Goldfein said.


Topics: Air Force News, Space

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