Q&A with ULA CEO Tory Bruno

United Launch Alliance Chief Executive Officer Tory Bruno addresses reporters April 8, 2019, at the Space Foundation's Space Symposium in Colorado Springs, Colo. YouTube screenshot.

COLORADO SPRINGS, COLO.—United Launch Alliance Chief Executive Officer Tory Bruno sat down with Air Force Magazine Tuesday to talk about the future of launch services and military space. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Q. How are ULA and the broader space launch industry forging new or better relationships with the Air Force as it enters this new era in space

A. Focus on the mission, that’s the simple answer. For a company like ULA that has been doing this work for a really long time with the government, and especially [the] Air Force is our most important customer, we sort of get that.

The new entrants are a good thing because it’s better for the country to have a broader industrial base for something that is strategic. Space access is strategic and competition is healthy when you have enough markets to sustain it, which we do.

All of that is good, but that means we have new people, some of whom have moved over from purely commercial industries and they need to understand that this is a business, but it’s more than a business. This is a national mission. The mission comes first.

Q. Major defense contractors sometimes feel like the Air Force believes the only companies that can innovate are Silicon Valley, start-up types. What do you think the legacy providers can offer at this point

A. Legacy providers can absolutely bring innovation. The position that the United States has occupied all this time, dominating space, no one even close, took a lot of innovation, and who provided that? The traditional companies. … There’s isn’t any question about that.

I think what the new entrants sometimes do better is to be fast and there’s also a big need for speed. What we can do together to serve the country is to encourage the big companies to have agility and to allow them to have agility. There’s a little bit of a, I won’t say a double standard, but two separate lanes for us. So at the same time, the Air Force might be saying, ‘Hey, I need agility, and I love the fact that these nontraditional companies are agile,’ sometimes they say to the traditional companies, ‘Yeah, you know, we’ve got some really great structured processes with you and I don’t want you to deviate from that.’ So why aren’t you agile? Well, because we’re doing what you’ve asked us to do. We could do these other things too, but sometimes there are a different set of expectations and rules for each of the parties. I think that it is reasonable for the Air Force to demand agility from both sets of industrial partners.

Q. How are you changing your development and business practices to become more agile

A. We’ve completely transformed the company. … We reorganized it, we restructured it, we changed our supply chain, and we have been both faster and a lot less expensive as a result on the existing product line.

In terms of development, this doesn’t get a lot of attention, but there’s sort of two things that are occurring in industry right now that are really interesting. The first is there has been a big improvement in our technical tools, our analytical tools that we use, especially during development. And the second is, there are new theories of how to accomplish development. … We have sort of embraced [agile development] wholeheartedly and we have used that in the development of the Vulcan rocket. I love it. I had some experience with it before I came here, these sprints where you optimize and then cycle back and then have the teams moving at a much faster rate. It is a really, really superior way to do it. That has been the baseline for the entire Vulcan development. There are other techniques similar to that around software that I’m also embracing because it allows us to get more rapidly up the maturity curve as we develop a design.

Q. What are the dos and don’ts of agile development for space launch

A. The dos are to go fast and use the process. It’s a sound process. The don’ts: it was developed in the Silicon Valley, where I worked for a number of years, around relatively, in our world, simple, short life cycle products where large-scale systems integration and large-scale systems engineering was not very important. So where I have seen agile go off the rails is when that element that’s not in the agile manual that the guys in the Valley wrote because they don’t have to do that kind of work, leaves out the big system integration task. And so you get all your [product teams] doing their agile cycles. …

What makes it work for us is you’ve got to let them go through a cycle or two and then you round them all up and you do a big cycle to make sure everybody is still connected. If you skip that part, they end up diverging and then much later on, you capture this and you find out that, ‘oh my gosh, my product has giant systems engineering flaws in it where different elements don’t functionally work together, or big requirements got left out.’

Q. What would you like to see from Congress as they write the fiscal 2020 National Defense Authorization Act and as they think about America’s next steps in space

A. I probably have two levels of things I hope for. One is narrow in my specific area of responsibility, which is access to space. I want them to continue to remember that this is a strategic national capability and that they need a healthy industrial base that is also able to sustain competition … and to not think it’s a fully commercial environment with commoditized products. So putting a finer point on that, the Air Force has developed a very thoughtful, well-structured acquisition for [the Launch Services Agreement program] and LSA phase two. They need not dismantle that. There’s a very good reason why it’s set up the way it is and they need to allow it to execute in order to be promptly off the [Russian-made] RD-180 and to have a healthy industrial base to meet these strategic needs.

Bigger picture, Tory’s a taxpayer. Space is 10 times more important now than it was a few years ago because it has become contested and we are losing our position of dominance in space. That needs to be a top priority for our country, and fortunately, I’m seeing it as a very high priority for this administration. Vice President [Mike] Pence in particular has spent a lot of time with industry and with the rest of the cabinet, sort of driving this urgency. We need to not lose sight of that. We are so uniquely advantaged by and dependent upon space that if we lose that ultimate high ground, we will be in serious trouble as a nation. It’s not just that we can’t be effective in a conflict, conflict will be encouraged because they will not be deterred by our superiority when that superiority doesn’t exist.

Q. What would ULA’s next steps be if the LSA Phase Two request for proposals is delayed

A. It depends on how far back it gets pushed. If this is delayed by too long a period of time, then Congress’s decisions about how and when they want to retire the RD-180 [used on ULA’s retiring Atlas V rocket] might have to be revisited. I don’t want to do that and I don’t believe they do, either. That was a long, multiyear debate within Congress to figure out the right path. They did, and they put it in law. I’d rather not disrupt that.

If it’s a very, very short delay, obviously we all cope with that. … This is the most expedient path off of that Russian dependency into the new capabilities that are required. Today, we fly a set of reference missions that we’ve had for a number of years. In the LSA Phase Two RFP, there are nine instead of eight reference missions, and most of them are more difficult. There are new capabilities that are required. So we’re not only putting at risk retirement of that dependency upon Russia, we’re delaying the introduction of new capabilities that are now understood to be required.

Q. Are there any Air Force programs other than LSA that you’re considering participating in, or that you think USAF should invest in further

A. Beyond the threats that exist in space, we must also pay attention to the other threats that our potential adversaries have invested heavily in, seeing those as weaknesses or potential soft spots for us. Hypersonics is … one. It is critically important that we have effective defenses against hypersonics and that we have those capabilities ourselves. I encourage them to also be pretty thoughtful and aggressive about playing catch-up there as well.

Q. There’s been a lot of talk here about the right direction for the Space Development Agency. What solutions do you think SDA should pursue

A. I completely agree with [Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson]. Early on, I would characterize the initial thinking about some of these problems as relatively nascent. There was a community that argued, well, space is now threatened, our critical assets in space are threatened. There aren’t very many of them, we’ll simply solve that problem by proliferating assets or by distributing capabilities across multiple platforms. She said it exactly right. … That is a very good element of a robust system, but it is far from sufficient. We don’t defend other critical assets that way. … We need that holistic approach.

In terms of [low-Earth orbit] proliferated sensors, that has a very specific use, not just to help with absorbing damage and still being robust, it does do that. But it also helps with the hypersonic threat problem. … Those kinds of threats require near-continuous surveillance and observation in order to close the fire-control solution and have an adequate battlespace in which to engage that threat and be successful. In order to do that, you need high-precision, worldwide coverage with low latency and a lot of bandwidth. That’s why that particular architecture would appear to be attractive, at least at the present, as we look at those trade studies.

Q. So you think SDA is on the right track

A. I do.

Q. What’s next for military space

A. We want space to be a peaceful domain, and in an environment where potential adversaries are prepared to take conflict into space, part of that means an overwhelming ability to prevail in that conflict in order to deter it. That doesn’t just mean assets that can take damage and continue to do their function with acceptable levels, it also means the ability to fight back. So you need offensive capabilities in space as well, such that you never need to use them. That will probably be something that is difficult for people to get their head around because while space was a sanctuary, that was an anathema—let’s not be the first people to bring offensive capabilities to space. That was a good policy, but the train has left the station. Other people have brought offensive capabilities into space and now we need to do the same, but in a way that is so much more effective that they never dream that by using theirs, they could effect a change that was worth it. In other words, we need to deter. … The aperture should be open to examine whatever those capabilities might be so the correct one can be selected.