The Institute for National Strategic Studies at the National Defense University hosted a small working group on U.S. Space Assets on Monday that focused on resiliency, rules of the road and deterrence. As with many other discussions of American strategy these days, if there was one consensus, it was probably that the status quo and current institutions are woefully insufficient to support and pursue long-term American national interests — in this case, in space.

Much of the debate on Monday would be readily familiar to anyone who has discussed strategy in space recently – problems with the verifiability of many potential or proposed international regimes, the importance of freeing American aerospace industry from the constraints that sap their global competitiveness, the lack of a coherent, long-range national policy, etc. But while much of the agreement and disagreement over what ‘should be’ would might have been readily familiar to those who involved with longstanding debates on the subject, one question stuck out.

The policy, think tank and defense circles in Washington, D.C. in particular can all too quickly devolve into echo chambers where the same old debates only intensify. But an advisor to a key policy maker asked a different question: what is the first step? He wanted to understand not just where the U.S. should be (like the rest of us, he had his opinions on that), but rather what was the first step to getting there? It is a practical questions grounded in the realities of current constraints. Fiscal austerity is now extending into a long-bloated and insufficiently disciplined defense budget. And in an era of fiscal austerity, which programs do we take money from? How do we transition in practical terms to a new paradigm of thinking, requirements and acquisition? Such periods are dangerous for longer-term capabilities of strategic value because entrenched, established interests exert disproportionate influence on budgetary choices.*

In my short time here, perhaps the one theme I have harped upon is the lack of American strategic and grand strategic thinking — specifically the concise, coherent, consistent and efficacious voice that those interests lack in national policy and decision making. This is a point that is perhaps all too easy to raise and all too hard to translate into pragmatic advice for a policy maker. So I open the question up to the readers of this blog: if one were to be limited to a single, concise and salient point, what is the one piece of advice that one would choose to elevate to policymakers as a pragmatic first step to facilitating bureaucratic, institutional, organizational and budgetary change more consistent with American national interests in space? The emphasis here would be on institutional evolution to be both more rapidly responsive and agile and also governed by consistent principals in the long term. These may initially seem like contradictory concepts, but the question that was posed is how do we bring acquisition and decision making into line with timetables consistent with commercial timelines (the Pentagon is far too slow in this regard today – and this is true far beyond the realm of space acquisition and policy) and at the same time have these decisions grounded in consistent, long-term strategic and grand strategic thinking (as was the case with, for example, War Plan Orange)? What is the first step to effecting real change and evolution in the bureaucracy?

*As before, I highly recommend David E. Johnson’s Fast Tanks and Heavy Bombers: Innovation in the U.S. Army, 1917-1945 for a historical example of two different potential dangers in the effective management of emerging capabilities: on one hand, neglecting it as the tank was or effectively drinking one’s own kool-aid as was the case on the other hand with the Army Air Corps and strategic bombing.

Posted by nhughes in Homeland Security, Innovation, Policy

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  • B. Walthrop

    “how do we bring acquisition and decision making into line with timetables consistent with commercial timelines (the Pentagon is far too slow in this regard today – and this is true far beyond the realm of space acquisition and policy)…”
    I am not convinced this is possible given the self imposed constraints that the JROC and PPBS processes impose on DoD. Acquisition reform has focused on the “business” side of the house for a number of years, and it has failed to produce the desired effects. CAIV would work well as long as it was actually practiced. I believe that we are caught in a ship (and probably spacecraft) acquisition death spiral that has a strong component of negatively reinforcing feedback loops that work like this: (1) Ships are expensive, and this sets up an almost insatiable desire to add as much capability to each individual platform as possible. (2) There is precious little discipline imposed on the requirements generation piece of the acquisition process at the top level requirements generation phase. (3) The operational test community further piles onto the original requirements by adding additional capabilities not specifically called out in the JROC approved documents by the addition of derived requirements associated with the CONOPs of the platform. (4) This leads to ships (or spacecraft) that are even more expensive which causes additional capability additions to the next round of acquisition, and it has become almost impossible to break this negatively reinforcing spiral. In a sentence it looks it would read, “Tell me what you want to kill (or visit in space), and I’ll tell you how to do it.” The problem with this approach in DoD acquisition is that it is very challenging (if not impossible) to predict what you want to kill over the 20-30 year service life of the ship. This problem may be less pronounced in space, but I suspect that the principle holds true.
    That’s the bad news. The good news (and first step) is to transition from a capability centric model of defining requirements through the JROC process to a capacity based acquisition model. If you take a quick look at some of the more successful weapons systems in the inventory, I think you will find that the characteristic that they have that makes them so useful is a great deal of capacity in a number of categories. This results in an inherent modularity in the platform. The examples that I look to are: (1) B-52 bombers (~100 year service life). (2) C-130 (similar service life to the B-52 across a range of combat and non-combat roles). (3) CVN (again a 100 year service life for the class).
    All of these platforms are inherently modular due to their capacity to employ different combat systems within some fairly broad technical constraints. This allows for both flexibility (and eventually speed) in deploying new capabilities, as well as the opportunity to amortize the cost of those capabilities across a relatively long timeline, if the geopolitical situation allows for the luxury of time during times of relative peace. At the same time, it sets up a situation where the platform can be adapted quickly in the event that the situation demands previously unimagined capability requirements.
    It appears that some of the intellectual as well as technological investment over the last 15 years will allow the USN to capitalize on a capacity based model for ship acquisition going forward, if the opportunity is recognized, and we are smart enough to take advantage of it. LCS has been (and will continue to be) an intellectual investment in the concept of modularity in the shipbuilding world. The DDG-1000 technology investments will facilitate delivering fungible capacity through the integrated electric drive. The technology investments in UAVs, UUVs, and USVs will indicate solutions to miniaturizing the combat capability that should eventually be outfitted on ships designed for capacity rather than to meet specific (and rapidly evolving) capability requirements.
    Although my experience does not include space applications, I am reasonably well convinced that an acquisition process that focuses on building capacity into the base vehicles that will eventually accept and deliver the specific capabilities required would be a good first step in this field as well.
    Let’s face it….we have developed the 80 or 90 percent solutions for the vehicle portion of both ships and rockets. Settle on a capacity centric design, get them into serial production executable by a number of industrial facilities, manage the ability of the base vehicle to interface with future capabilities, and turn the application (or capability) designers loose on solving emerging capability problems in a more timely and cost effective manner.


  • Lexie

    Hello Mr Hughes
    Well I don’t know what is the first step to effecting real change and evolution in the bureaucracy (I wish I did though) but I’m just a linguistics student after all; and I actually come here to read mostly not to talk really.
    Hey what do you think about the Apophis asteroid?
    P.S. you can not reply to my comments but I’m still a huge fan of yours

  • Diogenes of NJ

    The US Navy has terrestrial radars that can look into space (SPY-1), SLBMs and SM-3. I think that’s enough to get the Navy in the door as a player. The LCS platform will never support any of this – I don’t see how LCS gets into the mix.


  • Peter Brown

    While you could not have chosen a worse time to ask such a broad, sweeping question – timing is everything after all – probably the best place to start in this busted- budget, severely resource-constrained environment is to figure out who is really in charge and why, and whether everyone else in the national security space community is comfortable with this state of affairs. If nobody is really in charge and everyone recognizes that this is in fact true, then the first step is obvious – put someone in charge. At the same time, take careful note of the primary applications at hand in the space domain. Whether intel-gathering missions are given primary emphasis over all other space-based applications or not, there is something to be said for maintaining the status quo because above all else, it will certainly confuse the enemy (and keep them confused for years to come).

  • B Walthrop’s comments are excellent. Robert Work has often made the point about “on-ramps and off-ramps”, by which I think he means building in the flexibility for capacity rather than capability. It seems that the “Son-of-EFV” is being specified along the same lines, and an amphibious tractor should have the capacity to be rigged as a command post, recovery vehicle, amtank, fuel tanker or medevac

    News that second X-37B is preparing for flight indicates that there’s some work going on in this regard. The Space Shuttle proved the utility of a reusable space truck for long-duration missions; it also demonstrated horrifically that you should send a drone when you can. The X-27B has a Shuttle-like service life and a cargo bay able to accommodate all sorts of as-yet undesigned payloads.

    Regarding Nathan’s question and Peter Brown’s comment, I think a look at history of the Polaris Program would be fruitful. As I understand it, Adm. Radford did a brilliant job of managing that most improbable project through the tough rivalries and engineering challenges of the 1950’s, and the result was the establishment of the Navy’s role in the grand strategy of strategic deterrence.

    A forceful, gifted personality like Radford, or Rickover, or LeMay might be the solution for an unfocused space defense effort.