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US Air Force is moving faster on space contracts, industry execs say

An Atlas V rocket launches the Navy's Mobile User Objective System (MUOS) 2 satellite from Space Launch Complex-41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Fla. MUOS is a next-generation narrow band tactical satellite communications system designed to significantly improve beyond-line-of-sight communications for U.S. forces on the move. (U.S. Navy photo courtesy of NASA by Patrick H. Corkery/Released)

Industry executives say they’re already seeing the U.S. Air Force move faster on various space-related contracts. Service leaders say they’re just getting started.

Next up: an overhaul of its Los Angeles-based Space and Missile Systems Center, which oversees the branch’s purchase of new satellites and launch services. The reorg will stand up a new production and development corps, create the position of chief architect, and open offices for innovation and partnerships. The new structure will be in place as early as October, service officials announced at the National Space Symposium, a gathering of 14,000 military and commercial space professionals.

This comes on top of various moves intended to speed up how the service acquires satellites and contracts for space-related services — and ahead of a proposed boost of nearly $7 billion in the Air Force’s five-year spending plan.

“All of this is intended to both accelerate what we buy, but also to buy things more smartly,” Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson said Tuesday at the National Space Symposium, a gathering of 14,000 military and commercial space professionals.

An early test of this new acquisition structure will be the creation of a constellation of new missile-warning satellites. Dubbed Next-Generation Missile Warning, it is intended to be more secure from attack than today’s Space Based Infrared System.

“What we procure in the future must be defendable,” said Gen. David Goldfein, the Air Force chief of staff.

Air Force acquisition chief Will Roper said the service plans to commission prototype satellites before settling on a final configuration. Air Force officials say they hope to start launching the new satellites within five years of a contract award.

The Trump administration’s 2019 budget proposal, sent to Congress in February, is “very friendly to space,” Gen. Jay Raymond, the head of Air Force Space Command, said during a speech here. It proposes five-year spending — that is, 2019-23 — of $44.3 billion, up 18 percent from the $37.4 billion proposed last year for 2018-22, according to Air Force Space Command.

Defense executives said the Air Force is already moving faster in awarding contracts, particularly ones intended to fill gaps. Bill Gattle, president of Harris Corporation’s Space and Intelligence Systems segment, said Air Force leaders have been more serious, collaborative, and decisive when approaching space projects.

“If you were to ask me five years ago, I’d say this is all rhetoric,” Gattle said in an interview on Tuesday. “What I’ve seen in the last year is it’s moved from rhetoric to reality and it’s really impacting this industry.”

Engility’s Lynn Dugle said she had seen several agencies move more quickly, particularly the Space and Missile Systems Center. In an interview, the company’s chairman, president, and CEO credited the Office of the Secretary of Defense’s recent decision to delegate some acquisition authorities to the military services.

Gattle echoed that.

“We’re seeing them sign orders that basically allow them to expedite, due to urgent needs, and get those capabilities,” the Harris exec said. “We’re seeing quite a bit. This is probably the first time I’ve seen — in the last decade, at least — where I’m seeing acquisitions move to the left on the timeline.”

In some cases, and especially for classified work, the Air Force is awarding contracts faster. One “urgent need” project went from idea to contract award in seven weeks, Gattle said.

“On things that they believe are necessary, as tactical gap fills, we are seeing them move a lot quicker,” he said.

Harris and other companies are now trying to figure out how they can meet the coming demand.

“We have to step up,” Gattle said. “We have to be very careful that we don’t say we can do things that we can’t. There needs to be a trust factor between the government and industry.”


© 2018 By National Journal Group, Inc. All rights reserved.

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