Space bureaucracy should not slow America down against competitors

Space bureaucracy should not slow America down against competitors
© NASA

Over the last two years our nation has witnessed a lively debate about the future of national security in terms of how we organize, train, and equip our American forces to prepare for conflict that extends into outer space. While the future capabilities of the Space Force and Space Development Agency remains to be seen, it is worth reflecting on what has brought us to this point and recognize the most significant threat to our preeminence in space, which is bureaucratic inertia slowing down innovative advances.

The United States enjoyed uncontested dominance in space until recently. During the Cold War, Russia certainly challenged our leadership, but the United States fully leveraged space to build unmatched intelligence and warfighting capabilities. But this dominant position has steadily eroded. Today, China and Russia are real threats in space, having pursued their own terrestrial capabilities and counterspace assets designed to degrade and destroy our own space systems. That often cited 10 year capabilities gap is rapidly shrinking to just two years, and in some cases may be less. Put simply, China and Russia are now our near peer competitors in space.

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At the same time, the United States has seen a revolution in commercial space industry. Companies that are backed by billionaires, like SpaceX, Blue Origin, and Virgin, and startups such as Rocket Lab are driving down the cost of launches and opening up new opportunities in orbit. Satellites are also becoming smaller and more capable, constellations are growing larger, and the total cost to develop systems is continuing to decline.

We face clear external threats, but we have a growing panoply of viable solutions. We also have political leadership in Washington that is inclined towards action. This is the environment in which change can happen, and it is critical that we do not allow bureaucratic inertia, the true enemy of progress, stand in the way of success. Our acquisitions structures and policies were designed for development programs led by the government and in which space was a sanctuary. These worked at the time, but space is no longer a sanctuary now that investment in commercial space has eclipsed government investment. Acquisition and development timelines of 10 years or more just will not cut it in an era of rapid innovation today.

Ever since the last generation of satellites and launch systems were developed, reusable rockets along with smaller and lower cost satellite systems became viable. These advancements are happening just as the United States needs new responsive options to stay ahead of external threats. Yet, the enterprise is looking to maintain the same bureaucratic processes and strategies to acquire and launch “next generation” space assets while disregarding the inherent power of commercial innovation.

If we maintain the same bureaucratic processes, we are going to get the same solutions with “big fat juicy targets” in the words of General John Hyten, commander of the United States Strategic Command. They will be outdated, ineffective, and too costly for the environment today. China and Russia know our strengths and how to counter them, so why would we just continue to field more of the same with the same costly approach to launch? The reality is that there is too much uncertainty to lock ourselves into long term processes or planning with artificially constrained options.

Just because an approach works in one sanctuary environment does not mean it will work in all contested environments. I once had a flip phone with a multiyear agreement and limited minutes. It worked but there is no way I could operate in the environment today without my iPhone. Today, I am not locked into a long contract where I only get one iPhone up front. I am not frozen in time with outdated technology. I can upgrade whenever I want to get the best technology available. I have a service, not a product, and we need to think of space and launch systems in a very similar vein.

Changing processes and culture is difficult in any organization, especially one as complex as the Department of Defense. But that is exactly what we need to do to increase the resiliency of our space architecture, enhance our strategic deterrence, and deliver better capabilities for our forces. Government and military leaders recognize the imperative to change the status quo and are working to make these changes. Congress can help their efforts by asking the right questions on our acquisition strategies, encouraging competition, and delivering the best value for taxpayers.

We need to be more agile in space and change the way we acquire space capabilities. We need to take advantage of emerging space technologies and not artificially close off opportunities. We need to partner smartly with industry, create sustainable competition, and foster innovation. We should not let existing procurement policies, strategies, and procedures define our future national security space architecture. That is what we risk doing if we do not change the way we plan and operate. Bureaucratic inertia is a formidable foe, but the environment will never be better than it is now to embrace new change and protect our hard earned advantages in space.

Mike RogersMichael (Mike) Dennis RogersOvernight Defense: Latest on Iran after Trump halts planed strike | Dems call Trump's approach 'erratic' | Key Republican urges Trump to retaliate | Esper reportedly getting Defense secretary nomination GOP rep: Trump needs to retaliate against Iran to deter other hostile nations Huawei is national security issue, not trade football for our leaders MORE is a former member of Congress from Michigan and served as the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee. He is the current David Abshire Chair at the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress and founder of the Mike Rogers Center for Intelligence and Global Affairs.