AF Space Buying Strategy Dismissed

The Air Force's new space acquisition strategy, called Evolutionary Acquisition for Space Strategy, came under fire today from experts who said it would lead to higher costs and a less resilient industrial base.

It is a grim drum roll: Future Imagery Architecture; Transformational Satellite Communications System; Space Radar; Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle; SBIRS; NPOESS. They are the markers of perhaps the most cocked up decade of space acquisition. The first three satellite programs were canceled with extreme prejudice (ie, killed). The others endured enormous cost and schedule overruns. Those failures and struggles have left a very bad taste in the mouths of many congressional aides who monitor space programs, as well as those few experts who track NRO and Air Force satellites.

To help reverse this perception and to prepare for the next decade of space acquisition, the Air Force unveiled a new space acquisition strategy called Evolutionary Acquisition for Space Strategy, also known as EASE, in its 2012 budget request. It proposes the use of fixed price contracts and block buys of satellites such as the Advanced Extremely High Frequency (AEHF) and SBIRS to help stabilize the wobbly space industrial base and to lower costs. In budget briefings, Air Force officials said they hope this approach will save roughly 10 percent.

This will require congressional approval, something Erin Conaton, Air Force undersecretary, acknowledged this morning might be difficult and would be critical to EASE’s success.

But one of the most respected experts in space acquisition and operations, consultant and former advisor to the head of Air Force Space Command Bob Butterworth, told reporters this morning he thinks EASE will make things worse. “I don’t have any dout in my mind that this iniative will fail and will probably cost us more in the long term,” he said at a seminar organized by the Marshall Institute.

The Air Force strategy requires that it budget with consistency and fidelity over a long period of time — at least five years — and locks the country into buying the same satellites for some time.  Plus it requires Congress to change how it does business, something that can be very difficult to achieve.

Butterworth said he believes program officials will react by “weaving” more requirements into existing programs, perhaps leading to exactly the kind of program bloat that has afflicted so many of the troubled programs listed above. Also, he said it will probably lead to a smaller — not a more stable — industrial base and lead to lower cost savings.

For example, he said it would probably prompt a company like the United Launch Alliance, which builds and launches the EELV, to “buy lots of stuff and put it in storage” instead of encouraging it to buy steadily over time and thus preserve the smaller companies that provide unique hardware and find it difficult to weather the sharp ups and downs of the defense buying cycles.

Todd Harrison, a budget expert with the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, agreed with the difficulties of such budgetary planning over time. “The problem is, form a budget perspective , we are at an inflection point,” he said, noting that the last time the US faced similar choices in 1986 the budgets projected increases of 40 percent. In reality, budgets declined 6 percent in real terms.