Last week, just a few months into its second year of existence, the Space Force unveiled its design and intentions for its primary acquisition organization, the Space Systems Command. While the new command is largely an outgrowth of the Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center, it will also make some notable changes from the way the Air Force did business. These changes make good sense today and set the Space Force up for the future.
Tying acquisition to both service chief and secretariat chains
The Space Systems Command will be run by a three-star general who is a direct report to the four-star Chief of Space Operations. However, acquisition oversight is delegated to subordinates (program executive officers) who will report to the service acquisition executive in the Office of the Secretary of the Air Force. In its prior configuration as Space and Missile Systems Center, the three-star general commander served as the program executive officer for Space over top of subordinate executives; that additional layer appears to have been eliminated in the Space Systems Command structure. The Navy similarly configures its systems commands with senior leaders reporting to the service chief and subordinate program executive officers report to the service secretary’s office. It makes good sense: having lines back to both the service chief and secretariat helpfully links space acquisition—a service secretary's responsibility—with space operator needs—something more fully appreciated by the uniformed service chief. Indeed, we recommended both of these design decisions in CNA’s congressionally mandated plan for a Department of the Space Force , drafted before the new service was formally created.
The stability of the Space Systems Command structure and service chief leadership will also be important. This stability helps at a time when other aspects of space acquisition are still in flux. Last May, the Department of the Air Force quickly retracted a required proposal to Congress on space acquisition; a new one has not yet been delivered. Indeed, the Biden administration has not yet nominated someone to fill the seat of Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Space Acquisition and Integration, and the acquisition executive responsibilities are not scheduled to transfer from the Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics to the one for Space until October 2022.
Maintaining innovation and mature acquisition as separate activities
The new design also maintains the Space Development Agency and Rapid Capability Office — two activities conducting disruptive and innovative acquisition — as distinct entities. This decision will allow them to flourish under separate leaders, processes, cultures and budgets than those of Space Systems Command. Keeping innovation and mature acquisition activities separate is a fundamental business principle of “organizational ambidexterity.” And making these two disruptive entities direct reports to the Chief of Space Operations will allow for the top-cover necessary for successful innovation. These choices, too, reflect recommendations we made in CNA’s design.
Looking ahead, maintaining the two innovation-focused organizations as distinct from the Space Systems Command will make it easier to merge them in the future without creating undue change to the command. There is still some role ambiguity and overlap between the Space Development Agency, responsible for “next-generation National Defense Space Architecture,” and the Rapid Capability Office, which develops innovative “operationally dominant space capabilities at the speed of warfighting relevance.” When the Space Development Agency moves from its current place with the Under Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering over to the Space Force, it could be consolidated with the Rapid Capability Office while maintaining ambidexterity. In our congressionally mandated plan, we suggested the creation of a Space Innovation Center, merging those two staffs and other space-specific science and technology activities currently at the Air Force Research Laboratory to create a truly unique innovation incubator with a direct line to the office of the Secretary.
Realigning launch for realities of today and tomorrow
Perhaps most significantly, the Space Systems Command design realigns launch activities from Space Operations Command to the acquisition arm for the Space Force. This choice acknowledges that launch is essentially a means of delivering systems into orbit, rather than an operational activity itself. It also acknowledges the role that the launch vehicle developers — government contractors — have in executing launches.
As launch offerings, providers and volume continue to grow, the Space Force could one day provide logistics services to the joint force via suborbital and orbital flight. The new design places launch under a two-star Space Systems Command deputy. This sets the service up to eventually carve off launch services into its own command to serve alongside the Navy’s Military Sealift Command, Air Force’s Air Mobility Command, and Army’s Surface Deployment and Distribution Command, providing joint logistics as a component of the unified U.S. Transportation Command.
Thus, this first organizational design of Space Systems Command is not only good for equipping the nation’s national defense at present. As the opening salvo in a longer term campaign, it sets the newest military service up for future design choices and successes as the Space Force more fully comes into its own.