AFA 2019: The Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center is offering to share its public-private contract vehicle for rapid prototyping with the Space Development Agency (SDA) — a move that could help the nascent agency speed its projects.
The Missile Defense Agency has used SMC’s Space Enterprise Consortium (SpEC), funded by via fast-track Other Transaction Authority, for prototype work on its Space Sensor Layer to track ballistic missiles (and potentially hypersonic ones). Lt. Gen. John Thompson, SMC’s three-star commander, said today that SMC also is offering the contract vehicle to DARPA and “some of our other mission partners that choose not to be named.”
This does not mean Thompson is offering actually funds to SDA, explained acting director Derek Tournear, the new agency’s head. But it could be another tool to help SDA get off the ground, he said.
The rapid prototyping plan is part of a radical overhaul at the venerable Air Force agency. Under fire from Congress, SMC wants to move from massive, costly, drawn-out satellite programs of the past into a new era of small satellites launched quickly to respond to urgent threats.
And SMC is pushing hard for SpEC to grow rapidly — seeking to increase the prototyping work done by SpEC by 2400 percent.
The current SpEC contract vehicle was already increased five-fold, from a maximum $100 million over two years to $500 million. But SMC is now looking seriously at a follow-on contract that would allow for $12 billion in awards — yes, that’s 24 times as much — over 10 years.
(Since the total funding available increases 24 times, while the time period over which awards can be made only doubles, the annual average would increase 12-fold. But there’s no requirement to spend the same amount of money every year, or, for that matter, to spend every dollar available).
Our colleague Sandra Erwin at Space News broke the story about the $12 billion earlier this month in an interview with an SMC colonel. Thompson confirmed the plan in a roundtable with reporters at the Air Force Association’s annual conference.
“We’re not trying to increase the existing vehicle’s ceiling to $12 billion,” Thompson emphasized, although it’ll probably “go a bit higher” than the current $500 million ceiling. The big increase instead would come in what he called “a follow-on SpEC OTA II — or whatever we end up calling it — [that] would be something that we’re considering as a 10-year, $12 billion effort.”
With 325 universities, companies, and other research organizations as members already, the Space Enterprise Consortium is rapidly outgrowing its original management contract with ATI, which the Air Force recently announced would be recompeted. Its ability to get prototype projects moving fast, getting them under contract and underway within 90 days, has been “a vast success story,” said Col. Dennis Bythewood.
(In the reorganized “SMO 2.0” structure, Bythewood is Program Executive Officer for Space Development, responsible for all prototyping efforts. Production of whole constellations of satellites now falls under a separate PEO-Space Production).
For example, Bythewood told reporters, the SpEC membership was able to provide three strong competitors for a next-generation ground system for the OPIR infrared reconnaissance satellites, the Future Operationally Resilient Ground Evolution (FORGE). Another SpEC awardee is working on prototypes for the Next Generation OPIR Block I satellite, he said.
So far all the SpEC awards have been for prototyping, but Bythewood said the contract language allows prototypes to move right into production if SMC decides the technology is right and the need is pressing.
But Thompson emphasized the focus will remain on rapid prototyping. Scaling up SpEC does not mean making much bigger awards, he emphasized, but rather making many more small awards of the kind that have proved so successful so far.
“We’re not going to be awarding a $1 billion contract within SpEC OTA. We’re looking at smaller competitive prototyping efforts that get our programs off on the right start,” Thompson said. There should be no “fear,” he said, that “we’re going to be executing huge programs of record under the SpEC OTA vehicle.”
The audience for this reassuring message is Congress. Many on the Hill are already unhappy with how much the Trump Administration is shuffling funds around outside the usual legislative budget process — especially to build his border wall at the expense of military programs. The Senate Appropriations Committee in particular has complained about a $630-million-plus reprogramming request to move money into the Next-Generation OPIR program to replace the current Space Based Infrared System (SBIRS) satellites.
“That is a challenge in the way we, as a nation, budget… two years out,” Bythewood said. The Pentagon decided OPIR needed to move much faster to meet rising threats, which meant ramping up spending much faster — “It’s not additional money for the program as much as it is early money,” he said — which means reprogramming money already allocated elsewhere by Congress.
Bythewood was studiously neutral on whether he thought Congress would approve the reprogramming request. But SMC seems to be hoping that the more flexible SpEC OTA contract vehicle will help avoid such procedural agonies in the future.