As the U.S. Space Force, the new sixth branch of the U.S. military, gets off the ground, the emerging service is working to innovate the way the United States builds and fields its space hardware.
That was the message delivered Friday by Lt. Col. Walter McMillan, who is, in fact, the chief of innovation for the Space Force, to a group of military contractors, economic development professionals and military personnel. McMillan was among the people addressing the Defense Leadership Forum’s 2020 Air Force Contracting Summit at the Hilton Sandestin resort.
“I’m given a lot of leeway to try new things,” McMillan told his large audience.
Until now, McMillan said, the United States has focused its space hardware acquisition on high-end assets.
“We’ve always purchased that Lamborghini,” McMillan said, equating the expensive sports car to the U.S, space inventory.
Now, McMillan said, Space Force will be confronting a variety of space needs, which might not always require a massive investment.
“Space Force must fundamentally change the way we architect (develop) and deliver space systems,” McMillan explained.
McMillan went on to note that the United States’ “near-peer adversaries (Russia and China) are very active in the space realm.”
“We are no longer operating in an uncontested environment,” he added.
Currently, McMillan said, the Space Force is looking at what the next generation of space hardware will look like, as there is a growing demand for a space defense capability.
“How do we pivot space architecture?” he asked.
One of the ways Space Force is already addressing that question is through “pitch days,” in which small contractors present ideas for addressing problems associated with space defense.
Locally, Eglin Air Force Base recently hosted a pitch day for hypersonic (multiple times faster than the speed of sound) weapons, and on the spot, awarded $5 million in contracts to seven companies. The awardees have a variety of capabilities, from communications to propulsion systems to advanced materials research.
In November in San Francisco, the Air Force held its first pitch day dedicated to space issues, inviting 30 companies to make presentations. As at Eglin, $750,00 contracts were signed on the spot, McMillan said. Unlike at Eglin, all of the pitching companies won a contract during the space pitch day.
“Our space leadership was intent on bringing real dollars to the table to invest in our space infrastructure,” McMillan said.
Referencing the expanding private interest in space, McMillan said the companies working in that arena also could have a role in the military aspects of space.
Going forward, McMillan added, a general focus for Space Force contracting will be to “let small business present to us what is in the realm of the possible.”
As an example of the Space Force approach, McMillan pointed to development of the smartphone, which he called “a solution that no one knew we really needed” until it was, in fact, available to the public.
“We want you to come and partner with us,” McMillan told the contractors at the summit, calling the change in U.S. space defense focus “a huge transition” that also could be “a lot of fun.”
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