We’ve Lost Our Ability To Lead Complex Space Projects – But It Might Not Matter Anymore

The government has lost the ability to lead big new space projects. Too often if we are successful with a large endeavor, it’s a milestone we’ve already met. Concepts and parts from a bygone era repurposed; just as Evolved Strategic Satcom is attempting or like SLS has done. If not a rehash of an old program, large projects have meant unconscionable schedule delays and overruns, for which the resulting value-added back to society is just the number of jobs it has funded in someone else’s Congressional district.

I’m not sure where or why we lost our edge for tackling big space programs but understanding the cause doesn’t matter that much anymore. Almost every attempt at a large scale, never-been-done-before project since the 1980s has failed, yet each has more than made up for it with explainers inside and outside the government justifying every acquisition failure.

There are countless failed programs to choose from that demonstrate our waning competence in the traditional space industry, but Courtney Albon at C4ISRNET has brilliantly detailed the most recent example of our government missing the mark: updating SPADOC. The government needs to replace an obsolete system called Space Defense Operations Center, or SPADOC, which has been in operation since 1979. The arduous task of updating the SPADOC system has been known by different names over the years but has repeatedly failed at achieving the same goal: to provide a modernized command and control ground system for the myriad of military satellite constellations and maintain a real-time orbital map, or catalog, of objects in orbit.

I became aware of the problems of SPADOC in the early 1990’s while developing space systems that were meant to work with the outdated system. Yet, 30 years later, it’s still a mess. Thirty years is more than 10 turns on Moore’s law, meaning that today’s commercial computer capacity, in both memory and processor speed, is well over 1,000 (and closer to 30,000) times what it was then. And to think the concern was that the 1970’s era technology needed updating…

It’s almost incalculable the millions of dollars wasted in attempts to modernize systems and keep ahead of obsolescence – especially when you stop to consider the commercial capabilities that are already available off the shelf. In Albon’s article, Col. Chris Kadala, USSF senior materiel leader for operational command and control, assures the public that the Space Force is almost there – but no earlier than the end of 2023. With the Chinese rapidly encroaching on every segment of the space business, including what we used to call “near space” only a few years ago, we’re hoping he’s right. But even if the Colonel is right (finally!) about a project that’s 30 years in the making, it’s still very likely only a workaround for an even more challenging 21st century need.

The need to replace the SPADOC system and every other military command and control system has become urgent. To win conflicts while minimizing body counts, all must be part of an orchestrated whole – something the Pentagon now calls Joint All-Domain Command and Control, or JADC2. And with Moore’s Law continuing apace, increasing network complexity means sensitive data is subject to an exponentially expanding array of attack vectors.

The only solution left to this complexity of challenges is digital jujitsu. We must move quickly to completely privatize as much of the SPADOC system as possible and leverage the very commercial industry that is rendering it obsolete. For the extremely small number of classified systems, we could also separately track and catalog with the same off the shelf hardware and software in its own cyber carveout.

Unlike government projects, where speedy equates to two to four year development cycles, commercial companies, like those I work closely with today, have begun shifting to two-week code and test development cycles to keep pace against their competitors. Comparatively, federal projects require two years of executive planning and a year to earn Congressional funding approval before coding even begins.

The government, even the venerable Space Force with its tech savvy Guardians at the helm, simply cannot let the unique needs of a few special purpose space systems slow down the needs of the many space systems we need to bolster the resiliency we so desperately seek against the obvious and looming Chinese orbital threats and the enormous asymmetric threat of a potential cyber-attack.

All of this isn’t to say these commercial tech companies don’t need to be closely regulated – because they do. Many, some like their industrial-age predecessors, have begun exhibiting many of the ills of bygone eras when corporations were left purely on their own. Toxic workplaces, institutional discrimination, monopoly power seeking, even environmental damages. But much like the military industry of WWII that converted to forge the industrial might of America’s consumer economy, so too should Space Force set an example for how the tech sector can balance productivity and economic output with enhanced social responsibility.

The good news? The number of ill-fated government attempts to fix this mess is eclipsed by the number of commercial companies ready to step in and begin privatizing the various space tracking and mapping functions. The commercial marketplace for space systems has grown up and is well on its way to be a trillion-dollar economy by 2040. If the Space Force does not lead this privatization now, the threat will be far greater than a couple of Chinese spy balloons we are tracking across US airspace – it could be hundreds of them.

It matters far less why we lost our edge for big new government projects than it does how we solve it. Only by leveraging the full might of our commercial systems and embracing a certain boldness within government to see it through, can we be prepared for future threats to our homeland and assured access to the final domain.

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