Over the course of just six months, three top defense officials in charge of technology programs announced their retirement, expressing disappointment in a culture they see as an obstacle to innovation.
Preston Dunlap, who in April resigned as chief engineer for the US Air Force and Space Forces, said he couldn’t explain why defense organizations keep trying to reinvent the wheel, advancing technologies already on the commercial market.
The director of the Silicon Valley-based Defense Innovation Unit, Michael Brown, recently announced that he will be leaving his position in September, expressing disappointment at the lack of institutional support from the Department of Defense for the work the DIU has done to bring commercial technology into military programs.
Then there is Nicholas Cheelan, the former chief software officer in the Air Force. He left in October and expressed concerns about delays in the Defense Department’s efforts to develop critical technologies where China is gaining an advantage, such as artificial intelligence, machine learning and electronic warfare.
Last month, the Atlantic Council throw a sharp criticism to a culture of defense procurement related to space. A report titled “Small Satellites: Implications for National Security” called on the Department of Defense to ignore pleas to “buy commercials first.”
Nicholas Eftemiadis, the report’s author, is a former US intelligence officer who is now a non-resident fellow at the Atlantic Council. He argues that the Department of Defense must accelerate its use of commercial space technology — particularly small satellites and services from small constellations of stars — in order to stay ahead of China.
He said the Defense Department’s well-established acquisitions are a problem. The system is designed to reduce the possibility of failure, creating a culture clash with a more risk-tolerant commercial space industry. He added that the Space Force has taken some steps to fill in the gaps, but this is more of an exception than the rule.
“We are at a pivotal stage,” said Eftemiadis. “If we don’t make and do these changes now, we will lose China’s space superiority within the next 10 years.”
Eftemiadis said that leveraging commercial space technology is not only important to national security but also to strengthening the domestic industrial base. So far, no small commercial satellite service has proven its viability without government support. However, the growth of this industry will greatly affect the national security of the United States.”
During a webinar on the Atlantic Council report, space industry veteran Paul Graziani said he was concerned that despite calls for action from top leaders to use more commercial technology, the acquisition bureaucracy at the Defense Department would create obstacles.
Graziani is the CEO of COMSPOC Corp, a company that provides space situational awareness services and programs.
He said the defense acquisition system is optimized for the procurement of aircraft carriers, stealth bombers and submarines. “They’re great at it,” but working with commercial spaces is “that’s a whole new world.”
Graziani said Defense Department leaders stress that they want to benefit from competitive pricing and innovation in the commercial sector. But to do that, they need to change the system to make it easier for startups and entrepreneurship to challenge established players, he said.
The Atlantic Council’s “Small Satellites” report is one of dozens of high-level studies and reviews that, over the past 20 years, have called for changes in defense acquisitions. “But nothing happened,” said Eftemidis. And we still hear the department say, ‘We’ll look at this, we’ll look at that.’ “
The report highlights the Space Development Agency as a bright spot in military space procurement.
Eftemiadis noted that the SDA, which was established in 2019 to disrupt the traditional approach to acquiring military space, is on its way to doing so.
The agency is building a constellation of small satellites in low Earth orbit using commercial products, and moving at a pace rarely seen in defense programs. However, the SDA is only one gear in the wheel.
Sandra Irwin covers Military Space for Space News. She is a veteran national security journalist and former editor of National Defense magazine.
“On National Security” appears in every issue of SpaceNews magazine. This column ran in the June 2022 issue.