NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. — Amazon and Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos made a plea for the Air Force to become more agile, innovative and friendly to commercial industry during a Sept. 19 speech.
Bezos sat down at the Air Force Association’s annual conference for a highly anticipated discussion on space. While the richest man in the world didn’t make any big announcements about the highly-anticipated location of its second headquarters or whether United Launch Alliance had finally chosen a Blue Origin engine to power its next launch vehicle, he talked at length about how the service could improve its acquisition policies and space enterprise.
Here were the highlights:
Maintaining space dominance is key.
How can the Air Force stay ahead in space when China and Russia are developing increasingly sophisticated space technologies or systems made specifically to interfere with the United States’ own space assets? The key will be keeping control of the space domain by being present, Bezos said.
“You have to go to space more frequently with less lead time,” he said. “One of Blue Origin’s missions is to make access to space more frequent [and] ready to go on a moment’s notice [with] lower cost. … All of those things are going to be required in my view to move into a new era of U.S. space dominance.”
“You do not want to see that era end,” he said.
Requirements need to be more of a dialogue.
“It’s so important for the DoD, for the Air Force, for every government institution — when they can — to use commercial solutions,” Bezos said. “And what I find is that when the requirements are written, they’re not written necessarily taking that into account.”
The result is that the military gets a custom-built system that meets requirements, when a commercial system would have met a modified version of those requirements — but in a much cheaper and more effective way.
“Good engineers build to requirements. Great engineers push back on requirement,” he said. “You need to say, was this requirement really needed, because if we could waive this requirement, we could use this commercial system.”
Figure out how to become more nimble.
The Air Force’s need for greater agility was a hot topic among service leadership this week, and unsurprisingly, Bezos also brought up the subject.
One way to become more agile would to become much smaller, but that’s also a bad solution because the Air Force’s large size brings many advantages and allows it to accomplish bigger projects, Bezos said.
“You want scale. We love scale, and you would never trade the scale of the U.S. Air Force for anything. But the question then becomes how do I keep the advantages of scale and still have the advantages of a nimble startup?” he said. “I want to be able to absorb a punch because of my scale. And I want to be able to dodge a punch because of its nimbleness.”
It can do that by making decisions more quickly, much the way that start-up businesses do.
The Air Force makes high quality decisions, but “you just get them slowly, which is a problem,” he said. “The way to fix that in a large organization, and this is what we do at Amazon, is we acknowledge that there are two types of decisions.”
In one situation, if an enterprise makes the wrong decision, it can be reversed with very little consequence. Other decisions make it more difficult to get back on track, “and it will be expensive or impossible or time-consuming to reverse that decision.”
Valerie Insinna is Defense News' air warfare reporter. She previously worked the Navy/congressional beats for Defense Daily, which followed almost three years as a staff writer for National Defense Magazine. Prior to that, she worked as an editorial assistant for the Tokyo Shimbun’s Washington bureau.