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Research Summary

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The United States has a long history of funding foundational research in support of national security interests, and these investments have long served as a source of military competitive advantage. In this report, the authors assess how the U.S. Space Force (USSF), in conjunction with the Department of the Air Force (DAF) and the greater U.S. space science and technology (S&T) enterprise, can better manage its space research investments to create more-resilient and more-capable space systems through both revolutionary and evolutionary means.

The authors drew from their discussions with subject-matter experts, literature reviews, budget analyses, and an in-depth examination of recent successes in space-related S&T to understand the current environment from which the USSF derives critical space-related S&T — the initial phase of the larger research and development (R&D) process. From that understanding, they developed recommendations regarding courses of action that the DAF could take to better synchronize and energize research, development, and technology sharing within a complex S&T environment. Together, these recommendations outline how the USSF can best position itself to accomplish S&T goals and measure its progress against those goals. This report should be of interest to all those working in the U.S. space S&T fields.

Key Findings

  • Despite the rapid growth of the commercial sector, the U.S. government continues to be the primary source of R&D investment in the space economy. The recent uptick in new space investments from venture capital is unlikely to continue in an era of higher interest rates.
  • Because government is the monopsony consumer, signals of interest can spur follow-on private investment — the "crowd-in" effect.
  • USSF R&D effort is focused on later-stage projects, and long-term, exploratory S&T is relatively underfunded.
  • The USSF has unique considerations for managing its S&T portfolio. S&T investment needs to reflect both today's needs and future needs, requiring a balance across time horizons and uncertainty levels. The relevant scope of USSF operational capability is large and growing, with increased S&T portfolio interdependencies, complexity, and risk.
  • Space-focused S&T investments are not analyzed and funded as an integrated portfolio. The portfolio of interest to the USSF is spread across many U.S. government and DoD organizations.
  • Expert insight and judgment are key inputs for S&T management practices, including goal definition, metrics development, and portfolio management.
  • Accelerated acquisitions offer a complement to S&T by providing customers with new capabilities while drawing on the technology reservoir produced by the prior transition of S&T to industry.
  • Existing forums for discussion and collaboration are well regarded within the interagency space community and, more generally, within the federal research-funding community.
  • Clear decisionmaking authority and funding mechanisms allow ad hoc collaboration efforts to proceed.
  • Substantial opportunities exist at the program-manager level for collaboration with other services and agencies.

Recommendations

  • USSF leadership should rebalance S&T to R&D budgets to ensure that S&T funding is available to develop the next generation of breakthrough technologies.
  • USSF leadership should consider treating a larger portion of USSF S&T funding as venture capital through the SpaceWERX program to provide the USSF with more direct influence over private market innovation.
  • USSF leadership should designate a small percentage (perhaps 20 percent) of "space" core Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) funding to be allocated to AFRL directorates at the Space technical executive officer's discretion.
  • USSF leadership should assign USSF/SQ the task of making the distributed U.S. space S&T portfolio visible; this may mean increasing USSF/SQ staffing levels.
  • USSF leadership should assign the USSF Chief Technology Innovation Officer (CTIO) the task of managing the distributed U.S. space S&T portfolio to ensure capability gaps are filled efficiently and next-generation technologies of use to the USSF are adequately explored and matured.
  • USSF/CTIO should apply different approaches to USSF S&T planning depending on the intended time to impact.
  • USSF S&T leadership should leverage the expertise of external organizations, such as the National Science and Technology Council and its space-focused working groups.
  • The ideal balance between S&T and accelerated acquisitions should be determined through the application of principled portfolio analysis and managed according to various metrics described in the report.
  • Senior leaders from collaborating organizations should hold regular meetings to identify opportunities for partnership, identify and resolve potential roadblocks, and signal to their subordinates the importance of the joint mission.

Research conducted by

The research reported here was commissioned by the Space Warfighting and Analysis Center and conducted within the Resource Management Program of RAND Project AIR FORCE.

This report is part of the RAND research report series. RAND reports present research findings and objective analysis that address the challenges facing the public and private sectors. All RAND reports undergo rigorous peer review to ensure high standards for research quality and objectivity.

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