Hyten: Space Force ‘hasn’t cracked the code’ on faster acquisitions

Space Force leaders have pushed for change ‘but the bureaucracy is just really tough sometimes’

WASHINGTON — Former vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff John Hyten said he worries the DoD bureaucracy and congressional overseers are making it difficult for the U.S. Space Force to acquire new technologies at the pace that is needed to keep up with adversaries. 

Hyten, who retired in November as the nation’s second highest-ranking military officer, is an advocate for space programs and a long-time critic of the Pentagon procurement system. He is now a strategic advisor at the space company Blue Origin.

Speaking July 11 at the Space Innovation Summit, an online event, Hyten said he worries that the Space Force still has not “cracked the code on how to move fast in acquisition.”

A more agile procurement process was an early goal of the Space Force when it was established in December 2019. Hyten noted that the defense authorization act passed by Congress that created a separate military service for space required the standup of an acquisition executive office and “gave the Space Force a blank sheet of paper to define their acquisition process.”

The Space Force in 2020 drafted a proposal to change its acquisition process but it never got anywhere, Hyten noted. “The chief of space operations General [John] Raymond and his team put together an approach and they couldn’t get it through the bureaucracy for two years.”

“The entire time I was there as the vice chairman, it never made it through the bureaucracy all the way back to Congress,” Hyten added. 

“I think that the leadership of the Space Force has done a great job. But the bureaucracy is just really tough sometimes,” he said.

Meanwhile, congressional appropriators are criticizing the Space Force for submitting a budget plan that they view as unrealistic. 

Hyten said the Space Force is in a tough spot, caught between a DoD bureaucracy that wants to minimize risk and an appropriations committee that says the service is “trying to do too much too fast.” In a report June 15, appropriators cautioned the Space Force “against starting more programs than it can afford.”

The takeaway is that Congress is being just as risk-averse as DoD, Hyten said. “I don’t know if anybody’s looked, but the threat is real. It exists today,” he said. “You’d better be doing a lot really fast and you’d better be taking some chances and that means you’re going to fail every once in a while.”

“I would hope that the appropriations committee understands that they’re going to have to start taking risk in appropriations as well,” Hyten said. “I know they don’t like to do that because that puts Americans tax dollars at risk. But our nation is at risk if we don’t figure out how to do this. So we still haven’t put into place a fully formed acquisition process that can move fast enough and we’ve got to do that.”

High marks for personnel

Acquisition problems aside, Hyten said he gives the Space Force high marks for building a force of “intelligent, motivated, excited people that are focused on this critical domain and ready to move forward as fast as the country will let them.”

Space Force leaders also are pushing a “focus on warfighting and focus on the adversary, understanding what the adversary is, what the adversary is doing and understanding the need to move effectively against that,” said Hyten. “So those are two big positives.”

A challenge for the Space Force is to develop “joint space officers” that can work across the land, sea, air and space domains. “That’s where the joint staff comes from. That’s where combatant commands come from. Warfighting really comes to fruition in a joint environment, not in a service environment,” Hyten said. 

“The Space Force, the Air Force, the Army, the Navy, they’re just force providers to a joint force that actually has to do things,” he added. “So we’re gonna have to create joint expertise in the Space Force.”

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