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In case you missed it, the political leadership in Washington responsible for our nation’s security has been speaking very openly about serious threats that were previously only discussed in the most secure of facilities. Diplomatic, military and economic power plays from China have now reached a level no one can deny, once again calling upon the West to defend individual liberty against a new form of tyranny. Fortunately for us, perilous times like these in our history often have a way of calling forward the right person to lead. In the space domain, such threats are clear and present, already documented in hundreds of books, theses and comparative analyses that describe what is happening and why. But who will lead the space business to victory in what is shaping to be the first hegemonic clash of the 21st century?
Meet Lt. Gen. John “JT” Thompson, of the U.S. Air Force, the effortlessly friendly and optimistic Commander of the Space and Missile Systems Center in Los Angeles, California. With a confidence unmatched by his peers, he appears anything but a gruff general chosen from central casting, no towering blood and guts figurehead with medals from bygone wars on his chest. Behind smiling eyes, an astute observer quickly recognizes a steely resolve and relentless energy completely dedicated to winning this next space war. Borrowing an expression from his Navy siblings, he describes the energy of his command now as “all hands on deck to execute programs…no more PowerPoint managers anymore!” Make no mistake, this general is dead serious about not just reforming his command but also restoring America’s space industry, in both the government and commercial sectors to position us back at the top.
He assumed command only two years ago, as the successor in a long line of legendary space leaders that began with General Bernard “Bennie” Schriever over 50 years ago. Assigned by General Curtis Lemay to lead America’s new ballistic missile and military space programs, Schriever, a highly decorated WWII pilot, was given his new charge—create and then lead America’s space technology efforts to win the Cold War space race against the Soviet Union. In lasting tribute to Schriever’s successful leadership in establishing the culture and pace for that long fought victory, his statue greets all who visit the base today, reminding each of the space heroes of an earlier generation when they faced down the Soviet Union and their ambitions to destroy us.
Thompson is very different from Schriever, yet exactly the right 21st century leader for this equally different Chinese threat. Thoroughly schooled in military doctrine, strategy and culture, he has embraced the challenges of a steeply progressive 35 year career leading several business enterprises for the Defense Department. His career began at the U.S. Air Force Academy and has largely been associated with the successful transformation of the aircraft and weapons systems and industries to address our needs against post Cold War threats. Much like Schriever, his military and business acumen is matched with a mastery of the Washington bureaucracy necessary for lasting impact and victory. Thompson is no fighter pilot from a bygone era, no hero bomber pilot. His vision and leadership style, though, is unprecedented and is our nation’s weapon to address the gathering storm of this new existential space threat.
Thompson’s command was originally created to win the technology race of the Cold War by developing the most audacious and complex machines ever conceived of by man. The industry, processes and culture created for that purpose have served the nation well but have needed serious reform since the 1990s. Some improvements have come from the various initiatives over the decades, like reductions in paperwork and restoring technical competency that was lost in the 90s. Nevertheless, massive cost overruns and schedule delays worsened while innovation stagnated. Simultaneously, industry consolidation accelerated to a point where only a handful of large companies remained, unable to compete against each other and incapable of leveraging a thriving U.S. economy. According to Thompson, “that model is just not suited for the highly contested domain today.”
In his two year tenure so far, Thompson, an accomplished leader with little to no previous space experience, has expanded his contractor base by 330 new space companies, 80% of whom have never performed government work before. Competition of ideas is foundational to what he does. “Gone are the days where the vast majority of space development work is done in the government and then transitioned to the commercial sector after the fact,” said Thompson. His team has reduced timelines for competitive acquisitions from two years to 90 days and is cleverly tapping directly into our country’s most innovative sector. They are now partnering with private investors and tapping into the high tech, entrepreneurial culture once confined to Silicon Valley to leverage the current wave of commercial innovation.
“The space business is fun again!” quipped Thompson, with an authentic enthusiasm rarely seen in a military’s senior brass. As a leader, he constantly emphasizes and rewards teamwork, which he believes is the bedrock of success, whether it’s internal teams under his command or the many teaming partnerships he’s encouraged his four program executive officers to form with the other services, civil agencies and international partners. “Everybody brings different strengths to the fight and that diversity makes us stronger,” he said.
Whether Providence or blind luck, the military finds itself again with the right leader, like it did 50 years ago in the depths of the Cold War. Boldly rewriting how the Air Force develops and fields space systems, Thompson is revitalizing our space economy and encouraging the entrepreneurial wave ignited with the successful SpaceShipOne by the late Paul Allen in 2004. Last week’s fireside chat at the Air Force Space Pitch Day left no doubt in the audience that he’s every bit Elon Musk’s match in space business savvy, vision and speed.
Much like the Cold War called for Schriever to lead in our fight against the Soviet Union, it’s now clear that this general has been called for these perilous times. With love of country in his heart and victory as his purpose, Thompson is not wasting a moment of his command’s time. History will record whether the grand strategy he devised and is now executing will be successful. But with his heavy emphasis on truly empowering a new generation of military officers, with commercial companies and the defense industry all supporting them, our rival across the Pacific will certainly take notice.
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