National security space assets have recently undergone perhaps their most significant recapitalization in history. What some refer to as a decade-long "development binge" has led to a host of new technologies about to come online, such as enhanced signals on the Global Positioning System constellation to make it more resistant to jamming and to provide enhanced commercial aviation safety.
The Air Force certified the first GPS Block IIF satellite earlier this year. It’s also in the process of moving three GPS satellites into new orbital slots, to increase accuracy for troops fighting in Afghanistan’s mountainous terrain. Civilian users worldwide will still benefit from the new GPS capabilities.
In an artist’s conception, a laser on Earth paints an enemy satellite.
New Advanced Extremely High Frequency communications satellites, meanwhile, will provide 10 times the capability of the systems they are replacing. Although AEHF-1 suffered a setback in August when its liquid apogee engine failed, the satellite now is expected to arrive at its on-orbit test slot in August. The engine failure forced officials to execute an alternative orbital plan to get the satellite to its proper operational location, but they are confident the program is back on track.
The Air Force also is within a year of launching the first Space Based Infrared System geosynchronous satellite, known as SBIRS GEO-1. And five more national security satellites are set to launch in the next 15 months.
All of those advancements in space technology have given the US military unprecedented advantages on the battlefield, but unprotected satellites also leave the country’s national security capability more vulnerable to attack.
Space is a domain that was unchallenged a few decades ago, but today officials have little time to revel in their accomplishments. Instead, they must keep a keen eye on the future as they look to shave costs while striving to maintain the country’s technological advantage.
"What might be a relatively minor disruption for a less space-dependent adversary could be a consequential setback for our nation," said Schwartz. "As technology continues to effectively lower the barrier to entry, and enable more actors in this vital and increasingly competitive domain, both the capability and the vulnerability gaps might narrow. But for the foreseeable future, we will face the possibility of cunning or aggressive acts by adversaries to leverage this current reliance, and exploit our potential loss of wide-ranging capabilities."
The ongoing fiscal crisis does not help.
Future defense budgets are unclear as high unemployment rates, a trillion dollar deficit, an aging population, large federal entitlement programs, and the prospect of only a mild economic recovery threaten to diminish purchasing power despite demand for ever more sophisticated military capabilities.
The Congressional Budget Office estimates that the interest payments alone on the national debt in 2020 will nearly equal what the Pentagon spends today for defense. Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates has urged officials to rein in costs and has directed the Defense Department to find $100 billion in efficiencies from Fiscal 2012 to 2016, including $28 billion from the Air Force.
USAF Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz (r) watches 1st Lt. Kenneth Bowman (seated) and 2nd Lt. Neil Bockus work with the Ballistic Missile Early Warning System at Thule AB, Greenland. Both airmen are with the 12th Space Warning Squadron, which maintains, operates, and secures the BMEWS.
Despite the doom and gloom fiscal forecasts, officials say space will remain a top priority. In fact, three of the Air Force’s top eight investments in terms of pure dollars are space programs. The Space Based Infrared System, GPS, and Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle program have joined the KC-X, F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, F-22, and MQ-1 Predators/MQ-9 Reapers as top Air Force acquisition priorities, Schwartz said.
The effort to simultaneously upgrade nearly all of the service’s mission areas is yet another "daunting task" that will no doubt prove even more challenging in the fiscally austere environment, said Air Force Undersecretary Erin C. Conaton, who serves as the Air Force’s lead for space policy.
For example, USAF’s fleet of remotely piloted aircraft was expected to reach one million combat hours in December. And the service is on track to hit 50 combat air patrols, up from 45 today, by the end of Fiscal 2011, Air Force Secretary Michael B. Donley said at the symposium. The strenuous operational tempo for RPAs no doubt will lead to a need for even more space-supplied bandwidth.
Although joint interest can help ease the financial burden of new space programs, many of those programs also face technical, cost, and schedule challenges, said Donley.
"So to support this work, we have also made achieving acquisition excellence a top priority—this will be even more critical in the months and years ahead, as we fight to retain technological advantage, adapt to rapid changes, and work to do this acquisition work within a strategically relevant time frame and tight budgets," he said.
Beyond the formalized efficiencies program, the Air Force has other ideas to deliver more efficiency and space-related opportunity. The EELV program, which has a 100 percent launch success rate, has greatly improved US access to space, but its reliability does not outweigh the need to tackle affordability, Conaton said.
Air Force Space Command boss Gen. C. Robert Kehler said the command intends to keep "multiple contenders" in individual launch spots in an effort to keep program delays from holding back already busy launch schedules. "Launch opportunities will not go by the wayside if the satellite is not ready. We will set the satellite aside and go on to the next one," Kehler said. "The days of playing schedule roulette are over."
The plan will not only improve the command’s ability to get to orbit, it should also save a significant amount of money.
Schwartz commended such efforts to capitalize on existing capabilities, but said it’s also critical to take advantage of commercial aspects of space.
An artist’s conception of the TacSat in orbit.
"As we move forward, fiscal constraints will affect our ability to meet our challenges in space. We will require greater innovation in the design, testing, evaluation, and fielding of payloads and spacecraft alike," he said. "Innovation can be the linchpin. As it pertains to space, innovation can engender increased versatility in the form of satellite buses that can accommodate multiple payloads, payloads that can be integrated on board different satellite buses, and spacecraft that can be launched on different spacelift vehicles."
But Bran Ferren, co-chairman of Applied Minds Inc. and a member of numerous defense and national security advisory boards, said the Air Force is thus far failing in this effort. Ferren said USAF needs to invest in "big, bold ideas" attuned to the out-of-the-box thinking that enabled America to put a man on the moon.
"While I applaud the efforts to gain efficiency, ... it’s necessary, but completely inefficient, to give this country what it needs for its future," Ferren said, adding that the path to efficiencies could ultimately prove destructive. Ferren noted that the US completed the Apollo, Gemini, and Mercury programs in eight years. "Now, if we began a proposal and got a significant bid on it in eight years, we pat ourselves on the back as if we did something great. I think it’s ridiculous, and we are becoming obsolete in the technology arenas of space."
He suggested taking a small portion of the Air Force’s space budget and allocating it to extremely high-risk programs that potentially could reap big rewards. He said the service should then set aside an even smaller portion for programs that will excite the next generation of airmen in the fields of math and science.
AFSPC is looking to do just that. Kehler said the command recently "took a hard look at the function of the space development center" and adjusted its priorities, setting aside "a little bit more money in the way of acquisition, so that we are not losing this edge."
Donley recognized the need for an internal review of the Air Force’s space structure in 2009 as the service worked to shape its portion of the nation’s long-term space strategy through the Space Posture Review and the Quadrennial Defense Review. Once all the changes are put in place, it will be the first time in eight years the space governance structure is reorganized.
The Space Management Review was intended to figure out how Air Force space acquisition could become more efficient and less confusing for all parties involved.
At the time, there were five separate offices responsible for space—all reporting to the undersecretary. And space acquisition programs were separated from all other Air Force acquisition programs.
Of the nine recommendations that came out of the review, the biggest change dealt with streamlining that process, said Conaton. David M. Van Buren, serving as the acting assistant secretary of the Air Force for acquisition, took on an additional role overseeing the service’s space acquisition programs as well. The five separate space acquisition offices were consolidated into one, designated SAF/AQS, now led by Maj. Gen. John E. Hyten, Air Force director of space acquisition.
Lockheed Martin employees ready the Space Based Infrared System geosynchronous orbit spacecraft.
The review also confirmed the role of undersecretary of the Air Force as the service’s chief space policy and strategy boss. Conaton is charged with overseeing the planning, policy, strategy, international relations, and space interagency relations. She coordinates those functions across the Air Force and serves as the primary interface to the Office of the Secretary of Defense for space matters.
In addition, officials created an Air Force Space Board, co-chaired by Conaton and Gen. Carrol H. Chandler, vice chief of staff. The board met for the first time in November, and Conaton said it "is clearly going to be a great asset as the Air Force considers a wide range of decisions, from international partnerships, ... to operations, to our acquisition programs."
In addition to the internal realignment, William J. Lynn III, deputy secretary of defense, "recently made a series of decisions aimed at better positioning DOD to implement the policies and tasks outlined in the [National Space Policy] and soon-to-be-completed National Security Space Strategy," said Donley.
They include redesignating the Air Force Secretary as the executive agent for space and establishing the jointly manned space office under the Secretary of the Air Force, to replace the current National Security Space Office. As the EA for space, Donley is charged with integrating and assessing DOD’s overall space program, overseeing long-term space planning and architecture development, and facilitating increased space cooperation with the Intelligence Community.
But acquisition success can’t be achieved without help from industry and allied partners.
"Space has been described … as increasingly congested, contested, and competitive. I would offer that increased cooperation and collaboration is a solid beginning to address this trend," said Schwartz.
A Code of Conduct
The National Space Policy calls for expanding global and interagency cooperation to broaden the benefits of space. To that end, the Air Force, NASA, and National Reconnaissance Office recently signed a letter of intent, committing all three organizations to "closer coordination in the acquisition of launch vehicles, liquid fueled engines for boosters and upper stages, and development of launch bases and ranges, in ways that will help us share costs and address common challenges associated with the space industrial base," said Donley.
Gates and Australian Minister of Defense Stephen Smith also signed a statement of principles in November regarding space situational awareness. And the European Union is working to develop a "code of conduct" for space, which Donley said "holds promise for a more cooperative and transparent domain" in the future.
"On the global technology front, rapid advancement in communication ... has spread knowledge around the world, leveling competition and causing us, the United States, to work harder to maintain US advantages, making us more interdependent with international partners," he added.
The fiscal environment also will make partnerships at home between the government and industry more important than ever. If the acquisition overhaul is to be successful, it will require both the government and industry to readjust their mindsets and figure out a way to do more without spending more—and possibly while spending less.
The second SBIRS high Earth orbit payload, which will offer critical missile warning capabilities, undergoes inspection.
The renewed emphasis on affordability will require stability in both funding and requirements, plus predictability in buying practices, said Joanne M. Maguire, executive vice president of Lockheed Martin Space Systems, during an industry panel conducted at the Los Angeles symposium.
"All of us, government and industry, need to become much more disciplined in saying no to scope creep," Maguire said, adding that progress already has been made in attacking "requirements creep." She cited GPS III as the perfect example, saying so far there only have been two requirements changes since the contract was awarded—and both were to do away with requirements deemed unnecessary. The ability to keep requirements from ballooning out of control has enabled Lockheed to take the program to critical design review two months early and proceed on to the budgeting process. GPS III, she said, "is showing all signs of being a very successful development program."
However, to keep that kind of momentum going, government and industry both will have to resist the urge to add "just a little bit more testing" or to "ratchet up the specs" on certain parts for even more mission assurance, Maguire said.
David W. Thompson, chairman and chief executive officer of Orbital Sciences Corp., echoed Gates’ philosophy that the 75 percent solution is often the smartest approach. Typically the "last 10 percent of performance in defense generates about one-third of its cost and about two-thirds of its problems," Thompson said, "so if we can architect our future systems to be perfectly fine at about 80 [percent] to 90 percent of the level that technology might allow, I think we could be better off."
Multiple satellite buys are another option. Maguire said the Air Force is giving "serious consideration" to this idea, but at a billion dollars a copy, purchasing three satellites in one budget cycle often is not possible. In an effort to still reap the benefits of multiple buys, the Air Force is considering whether it could incrementally fund such purchases—an idea Maguire wholeheartedly supports. Once again, funding stability is necessary if the service is to see the desired savings of multiple buys.
"I think the benefits are absolutely there, and we should vigorously pursue them, ... [but] it will take real discipline on the part of the government to ensure that the funding flows in a timely fashion, or you could end up, potentially, at an even higher cost than if you bought them one at a time," Maguire said.
A Lockheed Martin engineer works on a GPS IIR-M satellite. When the follow-on program, GPS III, is operational, both civilian and military users worldwide will benefit from new capabilities.
As the Air Force continues to address the challenges and opportunities in the space arena, Donley said the one constant will be change. He cited ongoing leadership changes, changes in funding levels, changes to the governance structure, and changes to space acquisition as prime examples.
"However, change in these areas presents the Air Force and the nation with opportunities … to strengthen existing partnerships and enter into new ones; opportunities to increase flexibility and resiliency in space operations; and ultimately, opportunities to create more transparency and confidence in collaboration, which may lead to a safer and more stable world in the future. While these are not easy undertakings, they are necessary, all the same," he said.
Daily Report: The day's top news on the US Air Force, airpower, and national security issues.
Daily Report: Read the day's top news on the US Air Force, airpower, and national security issues.
Tweets by @AirForceMag