Keep Space Research, Acquisition In-House, USAF Officials Say

Inverted Metamorphic Multi-Junction Solar Cells are a more efficient and lighter weight alternative to the state-of-practice multi-junction space solar cells. A collaboration between the Air Force Research Laboratory, the US government, and industry has led to refinement of the IMM solar cell growth process, ensuring high yield, efficient solar cell production through industrial manufacturing optimization. SolAero Technologies courtesy photo via USAF.

Air Force officials are pushing back against the idea that a new Space Force should duplicate certain pieces of the air service for its own research and acquisition purposes.

For one, the Air Force should keep space initiatives within its own research laboratory rather than looking to create a separate organization for the Space Force, the Air Force Research Laboratory’s top officer said Sept. 17.

Pulling out pieces of the Air Force’s mission to assign them to new tech organizations isn’t the answer, Maj. Gen. William Cooley told Air Force Magazine in an interview at AFA’s Air, Space & Cyber Conference. That makes it more likely that the service will miss opportunities to develop new ideas that it could otherwise be exposed to.

“Across my leadership, all are aligned on the notion that we need a single technology organization that provides for, that taps into, those technologies for air, space, cyber,” Cooley said. “Technology doesn’t know its place until we tell it” what its place is.

He noted that the Marine Corps relies on the Navy’s Office of Naval Research instead of having its own research lab.

“One of the powers of AFRL is that it is a technology organization that is agile enough to respond to a number of applications,” Cooley said. “We hope to tap into the resources across the lab to support the eventual space forces."

Cooley said he has not yet met with the Space Development Agency. The new rapid research and development branch is expected to move from the Pentagon’s research arm to sit under the Space Force if Congress does approve a new military service for space in the 2020 defense policy bill.

It’s possible that the work of AFRL—one particular example is the Blackjack program, a joint venture between AFRL and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency that SDA is looking to leverage—could spin off certain ideas that SDA can pick up and fast-track into operations.

Cooley noted that next-generation GPS, and the experimental Navigation Technology Satellite 3 initiative, is among the options AFRL is considering adopting for an initial “vanguard” program. Vanguards, proposed in the Air Force’s Science and Technology 2030 strategy, would bring together experts from basic research to more advanced development for sped-up prototyping and experimentation projects.

NTS-3 is expected to first reach orbit in the early 2020s and would offer improved positioning, navigation, and timing from complementary satellites that remain fixated on the same spot on Earth, rather than others that periodically looking at a particular location while the Earth rotates. Harris Corp. is on contract to build up to nine NTS-3 satellites for the Air Force, SpaceNews previously reported.

Lawmakers have also suggested that the Air Force should get a separate acquisition executive for space, a move that Will Roper, the service’s assistant secretary for acquisition, technology, and logistics, has suggested would be inefficient. The Air Force already runs space development and procurement through its headquarters and the Space and Missile Systems Center.

Roper argued that although he respects Congress’s intent, hiring a new space acquisition boss would turn procurement into a two-headed entity, and split up the enterprise at a time when the Air Force is pursuing more closely integrated, multi-domain systems.