WASHINGTON — In a new report, members of the House Appropriations Committee raised concerns that the U.S. Space Force has failed to take substantial action on reforming space acquisitions.
“The Committee remains concerned that the Air Force has not taken more aggressive action in addressing longstanding space acquisition issues and has made little progress in defining what the Space Force will be doing that is fundamentally different than when it was a component of the Air Force,” said lawmakers in a report on the annual defense appropriations bill.
The Space Force was established as a separate military branch in 2019, but it remains under the Department of the Air Force. One factor driving the establishment of a space force was the expectation that it would help unify space activities and acquisitions, which were then spread among dozens of organizations across the various services.
While the Space Force suggested several reforms to the acquisition and budgeting process in 2020, major reforms and a unification of space acquisitions was anticipated to take place with the establishment of a new field command — Space Systems Command. SSC was expected to replace the Space and Missile Systems Center (SMC) as the Space Force’s main acquisitions arm, draw in space-related units and capabilities from the other services, and place the various space systems-purchasing organizations under one body.
The actual plan for SSC unveiled in April was notably more modest. While it continues SMC 2.0-style reforms begun under the Air Force, such as pushing approval authorities down and streamlining bureaucracy, the new organization will not include all Space Force acquisition activities. Neither the Space Development Agency nor the Space Rapid Capabilities Office will fall under the new field command as expected, instead reporting directly to the chief of space operations. The decision on which space-related organizations and capabilities would transition to the Space Force from the other services was pushed to a later date.
Lawmakers appeared underwhelmed by the service’s plans.
“The plans for establishing the new acquisition unit, Space Systems Command, consist primarily of renaming the Space and Missile Systems Center and incorporating existing space launch units. The plan does not resolve the fundamental issues of overlap and duplication in roles, responsibilities, and authorities among the various other space acquisition units in the Department of the Air Force,” lawmakers wrote in the report.
The report echoes concerns raised by House Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense Chair Rep. Betty McCollum, D-MN, who referred to the Space Force’s attempts at acquisition reform as “minor tweaks around the edges.”
“In the 16 months since Space Force was established, significant progress has been made in standing up this operations unit,” said McCollum during a May budget hearing with Chief of Space Operations Gen. Jay Raymond. “However, while progress has been made on the operations side, progress in addressing long-standing acquisitions issues has been disappointing so far. Too often over the past two decades, the space acquisitions programs have been delivered late, over budget, and sometimes billions of dollars over budget.”
The report also reiterates McCollum’s frustration that the Air Force has yet to appoint a service acquisition executive solely focused on space programs — a position created by Congress when it established the Space Force in 2019. Space Force and Air Force leaders agreed with McCollum that the position ought to be filled as soon as possible.
But the committee’s critiques go beyond the service’s reorganization plans and acquisition processes. Lawmakers suggest that despite years of warning, the Space Force continues to buy the wrong types of space systems. According to the report, the Space Force’s first budget request asks for funding for satellite systems made up of just a handful of satellites — what the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff calls “big juicy targets.” That’s the way the Air Force traditionally built its systems, opting to place a small number of large, exquisite satellites in geostationary orbit for worldwide coverage. However, growing concerns over adversaries’ anti-satellite weapons prompted military leaders to forsake that approach, instead encouraging more missions to be fulfilled with more, smaller satellites in medium Earth orbit and low Earth orbit.
Indeed, Space Force officials frequently advocate for a distributed architecture over multiple orbital altitude ranges, ensuring that the loss of a single satellite does not derail a vital space-based capability. The Space Development Agency was specifically started in 2019 to build a new architecture — a proliferated constellation made up of hundreds of small satellites in LEO and MEO. Meanwhile, the Space Force has contracted for designs that could move one of its most exquisite systems — Next-Generation Overhead Persistent Infrared — from a GEO-based system to a MEO-based system.
Despite that talk and those developments, lawmakers feel like the Space Force has not clearly presented its plans for a distributed architecture or how it will get there.
“The Space Force lacks a clear plan which defines its future space architecture and lacks a strategy for how this architecture will be acquired,” the committee stated in its report. “The Committee believes the Space Force needs a clear and concrete vision for its future system architectures, based not on philosophy but on rigorous technical analysis with executable plans resourced by realistic budgets.”
Raymond has suggested that answers are coming in the form of a force design, which is being developed by the Space Warfighting Analysis Center. The Space Force will release that at the end of the summer, hosting industry to unveil its plans and gather input.
Nathan Strout covers space, unmanned and intelligence systems for C4ISRNET.