Chair Force Engineer

Saturday, March 31, 2007

Why Space Acquisition is Broken

This post promises to be perhaps the most controversial one I've ever made, and it may land me in deep doo-doo. Yet I think the message is so important that it must be said, one way or another.

The full question of why space acquisition is broken is a complex one that can't be summed up merely with the observations of a junior officer. It can't be answered in a short blog posting, either. Yet progress has been made by the mere fact that the Air Force has actually admitted they have a problem here. Then again, problems as big as the SBIRS program are impossible to hide forever.

I think that much of the space acquisition problem lies in an unrealistic belief that space programs can be done quickly and cheaply. Nothing can be further from the truth. Space efforts will always be more challenging than equivalent airborne systems due to the challenges created by the space environment. The key is to employ space systems only in areas where the unique benefits of operating in the space environment can be used to enhance the military's capabilities.

The fact that we live in a pilot-dominated Air Force certainly bodes poorly for the space community. Few in the Air Force question why it took 15 years for the F-22 to progress from prototype stage to Initial Operational Capability, or why each example costs hundreds of millions of dollars, or why the Air Force is cutting 40,000 members of its workforce in order to afford this Cold War relic of a fighter. A space asset with similar development and acquisition challenges as the F-22 would not be given the same amount of leeway.

Most importantly, based on my experiences, our space acquisition efforts have been hampered by politically-driven budgets and schedules that have zero basis in reality. I don't know exactly who sets these unrealistic cost and schedule targets, but the people who are experienced in building and operating space systems know these budgets and schedules are totally bunk.

Cynically, it would seem that the Air Force tells Congress that its space programs will be quick and cheap, so the Congress will release enough money for the Air Force to get its foot in the door and start the program. After the program gains momentum, the Air Force will ask Congress for more money to finish the project. Congress will usually relent, at least a certain number of times, because they don't want to be seen as squashing a militarily-relevant program. Sometimes this cycle is by accident (underestimating the complexity of the program,) and other times it's by design (because Congress would never give its initial approval if they knew what the real cost and schedule would turn out to be.)

The most adverse effect of unrealistic, politically-driven schedules is that contractors will do rush jobs and cut corners with the design in order to meet these cost and schedule targets. I can't blame the contractors one bit; after all, you can't make a chicken salad if you're only given chicken shit to work with. And when the government takes delivery of these unfinished space systems, it faces an important choice: fly it as-is (and risk your satellite turning into an orbiting brick,) or pay the contractor more money and give them more time to fix it. Most people will recognize that it's faster to do things correctly on the first try, rather than messing them up and having to fix them later.

A lot of clear thinking is necessary to solve the space acquisition dilemma. I believe that lower expectations for space aquisition are the first order of business. Next, the Air Force should commit to realistic budgets and schedules that reflect the engineering realities that the integrators and operators will face. Lastly, we need a broad re-think of the role that space plays in the way that the United States wages war. Space assets are inherently expensive, and thay should be employed only when the space environment's unique properties can be employed to great effect on the battlefield. There are plenty of applications where space assets could probably be replaced by unmanned aerial vehicles and lighter-than-air craft. Unless the Air Force takes a critical look at the ways it currently employs its space assets and its future projections, the ossified space paradigm of the present will never be shattered.

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