Space: Aim Low

Posted: February 23, 2011 in Songs of Space and Nuclear War
Tags: , , ,

It seems a common pattern of DoD and Air Force thinking is emerging: aim low.

How so? First, consider the next Air Force bomber.  Now, consider space.  In both cases, “exquisite” has become a dirty acquisition word and it may remain so until further notice. As reported by Aviation Week:

The U.S. Air Force is not seeking funding to push the technological edge in military space projects…

“Good enough” will have to be…good enough.   That is, unless you’re talking about the intelligence community.

…“We are not going to be pushing technology nearly as hard as we’ve done in the past,” says Gen. William Shelton…

…During the past decade, the Air Force has not been able to deploy any space systems on time and on budget. As a result, the service appears to be suppressing its appetite for leap-ahead technology in an attempt to get back to basics and begin delivering on its promises.

On the other hand, what government procured systems, space or not, have come in on-cost, on-time, and on-space?Shipbuilding?  F-35? FIA?  James Webb Space Telescope?  The International Space Station? The Big Dig? None of the above, of course.

Fixed-price contracting has been sought by Pentagon acquisition czar Ashton Carter, but some in industry suggest this is not an appropriate contract strategy for space projects because of the inherent risk in developing satellites and rockets. “I’m not particularly concerned about” these views from industry, Shelton says.

Fixed price may work if DoD and the Air Force are willing to procure state-of-the-world (versus state-of -the-art) technologies.

Similarly, if we’re willing to outsource more of the defense industrial base to offshore providers, fixed-cost becomes ­­­more do-able.  And while I’m not sure what Congress will have to say about off-shoring, I have a good idea.

A wise government man once said “We want to pay a fair price and we want the contractor to make a fair profit.”  The rub comes in defining “fair.”

Shelton says he is concerned that contracts written during the past decade, which set the parameters for companies delivering the next generation of space capability, limit his ability to reward or punish industry for its work. Thus, he hopes any new contracts will have more clear guidance on how much risk the government and industry bears for projects.

He says he is frustrated that he is unable, for example, to financially punish a company for an on-orbit failure owing to contract language… Shelton says the financial risk-sharing must still be negotiated.

Hey government, want a better contract?  Write a better contract.  Otherwise, send lawyers, guns, and money.

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