Slow Going for Space Force Acquisition Reform

More than seven months after Congress created a Space Force, House lawmakers want assurances that the new service can improve how it develops and buys new technology. They’re even willing to hand the military extra money to work on it.

The catch: The Trump administration hasn’t yet named anyone to hold that key acquisition post, and the person doing the job right now isn’t sure how he’d spend an extra $15 million.

Work “would be better, certainly for me, if we had a Senate-confirmed individual in place,” Shawn J. Barnes, deputy assistant secretary of the Air Force for space acquisition and integration, told reporters July 30. “My goal is to do everything that I can so that when that individual is nominated, and confirmed, and in place, that I can really turn the organization over to that individual … as fully functioning as possible.”

Barnes is performing the duties of the assistant secretary for space acquisition and integration until someone formally takes the job. Congress created the post to oversee Space Force procurement as one of two acquisition bosses in the Department of the Air Force. Developing and buying new tools accounts for more than 80 percent of the Space Force’s budget, according to House appropriators.

“A key challenge for the Space Force is addressing the slow pace of acquisition, accelerating the delivery of next-generation capabilities, and improving its systems engineering and programmatic discipline, particularly with respect to cost and schedule,” the House Appropriations Committee wrote in the report accompanying its fiscal 2021 defense spending legislation. 

“The committee strongly urges the Secretary of the Air Force to accelerate the transition of the service acquisition executive authority to the assistant secretary of the Air Force for space acquisition and integration and to seek a space acquisition professional to serve in this position,” lawmakers wrote. 

That assistant secretary can’t make certain high-level purchasing decisions until October 2022 under current law. The Air Force would like to mull over the role of a possible space acquisition executive for a while longer, then suggest how to move forward, Barnes said. “There’s a variety of opinions about how best to accomplish that.”

Appropriators are particularly concerned about how the weather satellite and strategic satellite communications programs will fare without more attention from the Space Force.

The committee is offering $15 million to further Space Force-led engineering and to figure out how the service will bring together space capabilities from across the federal government and commercial industry. But it may be more complicated in practice.

“I need to think a little bit harder about how I would spend $15 million dollars in a single year,” Barnes said.

His office’s role has shifted its original focus on creating and counseling the Air Force Secretary on military space policy to place a greater emphasis on integrating the various military, intelligence, and commercial satellites, radars, and other products that make up the space enterprise. 

“That’s going to take some effort, and it’s going to take a different sort of talent than we have on staff now,” Barnes said. “We’ll be looking at what adjustments we might need to make to our Active-duty, our civilian, and our contractor talent moving forward.”

While a Senate-approved space acquisition boss could help smooth that process, the fledgling Space Force is also having trouble getting recommendations for reforming the system to Capitol Hill. Their suggestions aim to make the procurement process faster, cheaper, and more flexible.

The report on a new space acquisition enterprise was due to Congress in late March. Air Force department officials sent an interim version in May, and the White House’s Office of Management and Budget is now reviewing the final publication.

“I’m a little frustrated by [the delay], but I think we’re very close with OMB at this point,” Barnes said. “We’re in the process of figuring out how to implement those actions within the acquisition report that don’t require any legislative change. Of the less than 10 of those specific actions, probably six of them are within the Department of Defense’s ability to get after, and so we’re building implementation plans for that.”

There are “a couple sticking points,” Barnes said, without elaborating. OMB is not concerned about provisions like giving lower-level managers more authority to make important decisions within their program, or another to pick someone to oversee space contracting work. Barnes noted OMB isn’t concerned “in principle” about the idea of delegating some program oversight down the chain of command. 

“How that might be specifically implemented, and whether or not that would require some legislative change, is one of the points that we’re talking to OMB about,” he said.