Space acquisition chief moves to streamline contracting process

Space Force wants its contract officers to demand better results and faster deliveries.

Space Force’s head of acquisition only started last summer, but he is well into efforts to shake up the way his agency does business. Frank Calvelli serves as the first assistant secretary of the Air Force for space acquisition and integration, a position Congress created to quell the cacophony of so many agencies overseeing space procurements.

Although Space Force is only a few years old, the problems surrounding space acquisition predate the service. Building satellites and space communication previously fell to different services that didn’t always have perfect communication with each other. That caused redundancies in some cases, and equipment that didn’t match well enough to work together in other cases.

“The traditional ways of doing space acquisition must be reformed in order to add speed to our acquisitions to meet our priorities in the department. To gain speed, we must shorten development timelines by building smaller systems,” Calvelli said at the Defense and Intelligence in Space Conference on Jan. 24.

He said ground and software intensive systems need to be acquired in smaller, more manageable pieces that can be delivered faster and use existing technology that doesn’t need to be invented to be delivered. As part of his efforts to reorganize acquisition, Calvelli came up with a list of points to improve the process.

First, he said build smaller and reduce your non-recurring engineering, and then get the acquisition strategy correct.

“We have a culture we have to break. It’s a culture of new. It’s a culture of technology. The government, industry, we both like to drive new technologies as part of an acquisition contract,” said Calvelli. “We like to build new, new is cool. But we have to stop building new and we have to take advantage of existing designs.”

He said building new prolongs the schedule and creates situations where contracts go to cost-plus because of the risks involved in building new designs. Contracting officers and program managers need to work as a team, and part of that means only awarding executable contracts.

Calvelli said he frequently sees contracts getting changed and extended. The way to fix stability in a program is to shorten timelines to no more than three years from authorization to launch, and it has to be fixed price. When contracts go on for too long, they end up being renegotiated.

“There’s an approach that I really haven’t seen before until I got to the department, which is using multiple contract actions to develop something. It adds instability to a program that we need to stop. So the way to fix a program based on instability is shorten the contract timelines to three years or less,” he said.

Another area Calvelli wants to reform involves avoiding special access programs (SAPs) and over-classification. He previously worked for the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO), where he said they were able to break down barriers to system integration by getting rid of SAPs.

“[The Defense Department] is about 30 years behind the NRO in terms of classification. In DoD, every single program is either going to be unclassified, or you go into a SAP. And we have to break that paradigm. We are collapsing SAPs as we speak, we’re consolidating down,” Calvelli said.

While Calvelli said he sees plenty of ways to reform the acquisition process, he is quick to point out that contractors also have a role in improving performance. He said he wants to see contracting officers take a more active role in oversight, and not just leave it to prime contractors to make sure everything is delivered on schedule and without cost overruns.

“I’m trying to change that culture at the Pentagon with my program executive officers, that we need to be a more demanding customer,” he said.


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