Frank Kendall expects to work his way out the door at the Department of Defense, and decisions concerning the DoD’s use of commercial satellite communications are among the tasks he intends to tackle in his last 11 months in office.
Speaking at the Washington Space Business Roundtable luncheon on Tuesday, the DoD’s Undersecretary for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics, acknowledged that several commercial satellite providers plan to launch robust new systems soon. “We’re talking to commercial enterprises, and we are positioning ourselves to take advantage of that proliferation,” he said.
”Space is under threat more than at any other time in our history due to new anti-satellite capabilities from Russia and China,” Kendall said. “Resiliency is now much more important, and we’re looking at ways to incorporate this into our space architecture.”
Kendall has served under three defense secretaries since being confirmed in his position by the Senate in 2012. He also has had to cope with Congress-mandated sequestration. During that time, he also has seen the reemergence of Russia as a potential military threat, along with the growth of China’s military technology.
He calls the two countries’ military technology “near-peers” of the United States and said in a recent interview with Defense News that “the change situation in Russia is a driver in (the 2017 defense) budget.”
That budget, which is before Congress, involves a reduced rate of acquisition of some weapons as well as a different way to handle research and development. Changes in those areas were made to deal with a $15 billion shortfall from DoD’s budget request.
“We’re trying to do some things to move the ball forward in a way that’s relatively inexpensive compared (to the past),” Kendall said. “What I’m talking about is demonstration programs, earlier technology stage work that reduces lead time to getting an actual capability, but does not have the cost associated with a full-scale development program, for example.”
The tactics do not change the primary aim of the budget.
“We have to strike a balance,” Kendall said. “We have ongoing campaigns, which are not going to end anytime soon. We have the need to provide stability around the world for our partners. And we need to have our forces as ready as possible for whatever fight might happen tomorrow, as well as to modernize and prepare for future threats. It’s getting that balance right that drives the whole process.”
The emergence of the “near-peers,” as well as North Korea, Iran and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, is prompting the Pentagon to be more close-mouthed about budget specifics as well as contract and program costs, lest a potential adversary use them in technology development.
Kendall’s “Better Buying Power” initiatives have attempted to change both development procedures and acquisition culture in the Pentagon. But some believe that the focus on price at the expense of quality is being misapplied. Kendall agrees.
A 25 percent acquisition staff reduction at DoD has contributed to a greater reliance on lowest price/technically acceptable (LPTA) contracts over greater review of complex contracts because it’s just easier, he said. Kendall added that he wants to move away from LPTA contracts in cases where the value of performance justifies the price.
Even with the shrinking staff, Kendall believes his office is making progress, as reflected in the third annual “Performance of the Defense Acquisition System,” published last year.
“It showed that our cycle time is getting shorter, our schedule slips are going down and cost control is much better,” Kendall said. “Since the (beginning) of the Better Buying Power initiatives, we have dramatically changed the trend and improved the cost in terms of contract cost growth – particularly for our major programs.”
“That’s compelling evidence that we’re making a difference.”