Air Force SMC 2.0 Effort Is Driving Innovation into Space
The Space and Missile Systems Center’s reorganization is still dependent on acquisition changes, leader says.
For the last year, the U.S. Air Force’s Space and Missile Systems Center, known as SMC, has been revamping how it does business. As part of the service’s Space Command, SMC is at the helm of the military’s satellite communications and is confronting a contested space environment as well as a need to innovate faster. As such, the SMC is pursuing a reorganization it has dubbed SMC 2.0, which involves shifting its contracting and decision-making approaches to improve the nation’s defense-related satellite communications.
“When we talk about organizing across the board, we laid that out within the Space Missile Systems Center, what we call SMC 2.0, and we're really trying to rearchitect the way we're doing business within the center,” explained Col. Dennis Bythewood, USAF, program executive officer for Space Development, Space and Missile Systems Center, speaking Friday at the Mitchell Institute for Aerospace Studies Space Breakfast Series.
The SMC 2.0 effort is meant to support the ability to bring innovative solutions into SMC under a multilayered approach, the colonel explained. The Air Force is pursuing an architecture that allows for adding or upgrading components in a quick and straightforward manner. It is all about being able to rapidly onboard new capabilities, the colonel stressed.
“Part of that pivot is what I'll call integrated and open architecture,” Col. Bythewood said. “We tend to get caught in the mode that starts at the sensor layer, and we build a new set of satellites—and certainly we’ll still build satellites, and we're certainly very interested in the sensor layers. But we've learned over the years, both in this agency, and in others, that integrated open ground architecture is really the linchpin.”
To address changes in ground-based platforms, in June, SMC created the Cross Mission Ground and Communications Enterprise, led by Col. Rhet Turnbull, to modernize from the bottom level or ground up, Col. Bythewood said. “We have taken individual ground systems for individual programs and really want to make sure that in an open architecture that we were putting together a layer that would allow us to onboard anything,” he noted.
Additions could include a program of record, a residual operations R&D satellite, an allied platform or something built by the Missile Defense Agency or by the new Space Development Agency, the colonel offered.
However, acquisition and contracting still remains a matter to address, the colonel said. “We look at the architectures as an opportunity, but the thing that underpins all of the architectures is really from an acquisition standpoint, the contracting environments and the structures that we put in place.”
The Air Force is relying on the Space Enterprise Consortium to drive solutions needed to operate in a more complicated space environment, he said, adding that so far, it has been a success. “One of the things that we’ve laid into place is our Space Enterprise Consortium OTA [other transactional authority],” he said. “We've crossed 300 members now. And we're pushing against the ceiling on how much I've got in that contract and fighting every day to increase it. But what we've seen within that world is a mix of large capable primes, teaming with small, new entrants into the space environment, to move forward on capabilities. We think it's awesome, right, from our standpoint to be able to bring new players into the mix.”
The Defense Department’s Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) contract is another important vehicle to bring innovation quickly to SMC, the colonel said. Participants on contract in SBIR Phase I that responded to a broad area announcement for SBIR 19.2 were eligible to submit white paper solutions for SMC’s consideration. About 20 or 30 companies will be selected to compete for up to $40 million at the Air Force Pitch Day for Space, planned for November 6, in San Francisco.
Col. Bythewood sees it as an opportunity to quickly fill gaps in SMC’s space capabilities,and, at the event, to give out contracts that day for good ideas. “Once again we have a series of capabilities that we're trying to deliver within a multilayered architecture,” the colonel clarifies. “And we’ve looked across that to understand where do we think the gaps and needs are, and then engage with industry in that broad set to say ‘bring us ideas.’ And what we're looking for from Space Pitch Day is to be able to take and seed a series of efforts with dollars, quickly, in order to drive at those pieces.”
He sees SMC using this type of contracting process again. “I expect to see that come as a repeated activity within the Space and Missile Systems Center. It is one in which we're reaching out to industry to find out what are the other ideas out there that we haven't thought of.” In addition to looking to commercial sector solutions, the Air Force also is harnessing international partnerships with its allies to leverage innovative space capabilities.
Having the flexibility to add space solutions quickly is driven by the growing threats, he stressed.
“For us it was a matter of taking operators, who are used to operating our systems and used to dealing with what I'll call threats in a benign environment, [like] a system breakdown on a 20-year-old satellite or the effects of space weather, and really turning the dial to, how do you react when you've got someone snuggling up next to you online. How do you react with, when you’ve got a DN 2 [Dong Neng-2; a Chinese antisatellite missile] coming down to take you out of mission? It really was a change of mindset across our entire operational forces. And what we realized was that it was just the beginning. The change in mindset needed to drive across our entire architecture to include how we acquire systems and what systems we do acquire.”