NEWS FROM SPACE SYMPOSIUM: New Space Development Agency Sparks Controversy

By Stew Magnuson
Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson and Space Development Agency Director Fred Kennedy

Photos: Defense Dept.

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — Newly appointed Space Development Agency Director Fred Kennedy on Aug. 9 laid out his vision for the recently established organization here at the Space Symposium, but not everyone is on board with his ideas.

Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson, who has only about six weeks remaining before she leaves government service to become the president of the University of Texas at El Paso, criticized one of Kennedy’s key goals, which is to harness the new wave of space startups to create a layer of communication satellites in low-Earth orbit.

In the two officials’ two separate speeches at the symposium, Wilson defended the Air Force’s Space and Missile Systems Center, which has a history of developing large, exquisite satellites, while Kennedy sharply criticized the space acquisition practices of the past.

Wilson said the Air Force had recently finished a 90-day space strategy study. While she could not reveal many of its details, she highlighted one key finding that cautioned against the Space Development Agency’s No. 1 priority — creating a meshed communications network.

Kennedy said: “We need to watch and learn from the small satellite builders and glean best practices; best practices that we can then apply to the development and production of military payloads.” The agency will take what it learns and create a meshed communications network in low-Earth orbit that will serve as the backbone for all its other proposed systems. The agency is aiming for its first on-orbit satellites by 2022. It should employ commercial small launch vehicles and small satellites “whenever feasible,” he said.

His announcement marked the first proposed military satellite communication system since the Transformational-Satellite program was cancelled in 2009. For the past decade, the Air Force has engaged in a series of studies to find out what comes next for milsatcom, but has never proposed any ideas.

Although she did not mention Kennedy or the Space Development Agency by name, Wilson in a speech earlier in the day sharply criticized Kennedy’s plan, saying the 90-day study warned against it. “Launching hundreds of cheap satellites a year as a substitute to the complex architectures ... we provide to the warfighter will result in failure on America’s first day if we rely upon them alone,” she said. Increasing the number of satellites helps, but numbers are not enough, she said. The study was based on wargames and simulations, Wilson added.

“Different missions will require different solutions. One size does not fit all,” Wilson said. Space missions that are not well aligned with commercial, low-Earth orbit satellites should remain where they are, she said quoting the study.

She also quoted the essayist H. L. Mencken: “For every complex problem, there is an answer that is clear, simple and wrong.”

Kennedy, a former Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency program manager, in his first major speech since being named the inaugural director, laid out his plan for the Space Development Agency. It took 60 days to produce the plan.

The Space Development Agency will answer to Undersecretary of Defense for Research and Engineering Michael Griffin. The Trump administration is requesting $75 million in the fiscal year 2020 budget request to get it up and running. The agency will be given authorities to rapidly acquire technologies, he said.

Kennedy said U.S. space assets face two problems. One is external: the rapid development of Chinese and Russian weapons designed to counter U.S. space systems. But the other is internal: namely the slow acquisition system. It is marked by “profound and pathological risk aversion,” he said.

U.S. military space has reached an “inflection point” and has a once in a lifetime opportunity to take advantage of all the innovation and investment happening in the commercial space sector as startups learn to launch and build satellites at lower costs by applying the principles of mass production.

“This is something, frankly, we should have tried to implement 20 years ago,” he said, taking another shot at the current acquisition system. It is “precisely what the DoD needs to build up the next generation of national security space architecture capabilities rapidly and affordably.”

Other priorities for the Space Development Agency include a space and missile warning system, alternative position navigation and timing systems, applying artificial intelligence to an “internet of military things,” extending space situational awareness, and rapid small- and medium-launch capabilities, he said.

The latter will be essential for upgrading and replenishing space-based systems rapidly, he said.

This is all notional so far and it derives from the Space Development Agency’s 60-day study, which was not to be confused with the Air Force’s 90-day study, Kennedy said. “I promised not to say anything about how we got it done faster,” he quipped.

Wilson’s speech mentioned little about the proposed space force or directly about the Space Development Agency.

One of the reasons behind the space force idea was to speed up the pace of acquisition as potential adversaries such as China and Russia developed their counter-space weapons. Wilson announced at the 2018 Space Symposium a series of reforms for the Space and Missile Systems Center. She said those reforms had been a success.

The center has eliminated layers of bureaucracy and flattened the organization in order to make decisions quicker, she said. Program executive officers have been given full decisional authority over their programs. “I want program managers managing their programs and not managing the Pentagon,” Wilson added.

Last summer, the Air Force set a goal to strip 100 years off its acquisition decision-making timelines. So far, it has eliminated 80 years, with 21 and a half coming from space systems. Much of the credit for that work goes to the Space and Missile Systems Center, she added.

“This new organizational structure at SMC will streamline decision-making and move concepts from the back of the envelope to the payload envelope fast and smarter,” she said.

Meanwhile, there is another Air Force agency with a similar mission to the Space Development Agency. The Space And Missile Systems Center has set up a space rapid capabilities office, which Congress called for in the latest National Defense Authorization Act. It is already developing three classified projects, Wilson noted.


Topics: Space

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