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National Defense > Blog > Posts > Air Force Continues to Ponder New Ways to Buy Satellites
Air Force Continues to Ponder New Ways to Buy Satellites
By Sandra I. Erwin




For buyers of military satellites, it’s been a rough six years.

The first pressure point was China’s anti-satellite missile test in January 2007, which exposed the potential vulnerability of U.S. spacecraft.

Then came the acquisition woes. A scathing government audit report in 2009 faulted the Pentagon for massive cost overruns and delays in most of its big-ticket satellite procurements. That was followed by another devastating blow, the cancellation of TSAT — the military’s most ambitious yet satellite communications program — and the suspension of a new constellation of weather satellites.

Compounding matters was the projected slide in military spending that made it all the more clear that the space business needed a change of direction.

The U.S. Air Force, which oversees most military space programs, has tried several methods to cut costs and spur innovation. Officials say they have made strides, but far more needs to be done.

“Are there better, more affordable ways to provide these capabilities?” asks Air Force Brig. Gen. Roger W. Teague, 
director of strategic plans, programs and analyses at Air Force Space Command. 

In search of answers and fresh ideas, Teague is leading a new effort to revamp satellite acquisitions, called “space modernization initiative.” The goal is to both reduce cost and build satellites that are less susceptible to enemy jamming or physical attacks.

“We need systems that can continue to provide capabilities in non-benign environments,” Teague says in an interview from Peterson Air Force Base, Colo. “Disaggregation is one avenue to achieve that.” 

The command describes its latest thinking in a white paper published last month, titled, “Resiliency and Disaggregated Space Architectures.”

Disaggregation is industry shorthand for nontraditional satellite procurement. The functions that military satellites perform — such as communications, weather forecasting, navigation and remote sensing — would be accomplished by payloads hosted on commercial satellites or by smaller, less complex military spacecraft.

The white paper defines disaggregation as the “dispersion of space-based missions, functions or sensors across multiple systems spanning one or more orbital plane, platform, host or domain.”

The underlying problem for satellite buyers is that they are not yet sure how to transition away from designs that date back to the Cold War, when funding was no object and threats to space systems were considered improbable as they were seen as a prelude to nuclear war.

“The current paradigm isn't working for the Air Force,” says Marco A. Caceres, senior analyst and director of space studies at The Teal Group. “Their requirements haven't diminished, the demand for space capabilities has increased, and they need cheaper way to get payloads in orbit as quickly as possible.”

Because satellites have to meet stringent specifications, their design and development takes 10 to 14 years, and the current procurement process is too rigid to accommodate technology updates, the Air Force white paper says. “During development, incorporating advances in technology is often difficult as it slows design development and adds significantly to system costs. Once on orbit, hardware upgrades are not practicable. This combination results in technology being ‘locked in’ for what may be a lengthy period of time.”

One reason for past cost overruns and schedule delays, the paper says, is the difficulty of integrating multiple payloads onto a single bus. In the case of the failed weather satellite program — the national polar-orbiting operational environmental satellite system, or NPOESS — the complexity of installing different sensors on a single platform grew to be too expensive and difficult. “Disaggregation reduces this type of integration risk,” the paper says, by relying on simpler designs that perform single functions but operating together can do the same job as the monolithic design.

The other drawback of current satellites is that they have become tempting targets for adversaries who are aware of the huge dependency that the United States has on these systems, not only in military and intelligence operations but also in its civilian economy.

The disaggregation theory soon might be tested on two the military’s largest and priciest satellite constellations: the Advanced Extremely High Frequency (AEHF) communications spacecraft and the Space Based Infrared System (SBIRS) missile warning satellites. Both constellations were designed by Lockheed Martin Corp.

These programs, which Teague characterized as “crown jewels” of military space, are central to many of the Defense Department’s missions but cost a billion dollars per satellite and are becoming difficult to justify in the post-Cold War era. In the case of AEHF, says Teague, it might make sense to separate the “strategic” mission — communications during a nuclear war — from its “tactical” functions in routine military operations.

The more frequently used tactical functions, for instance, could be hosted on other satellites or performed by alternate payloads, Teague says.

Under the space modernization initiative, he says, both AEHF and SBIRS are being singled out as possible candidates for change. “The goal is to evolve existing programs of record,” says Teague. “Is it possible to continue to evolve these systems in a more affordable way?”

Another motivating factor are worries about the space industrial base. “That is a real concern,” says Teague. Unless the market becomes more attractive to companies, the government is at risk of relying on a diminishing pool of suppliers, he says. How to incentivize competition is “at the heart of the space modernization initiative.”

Teague says disaggregation will open the market to new players and will help the space industry by creating demand for additional hardware and spare parts. “If you use smaller, less complex satellites, more companies can compete against established industry leaders,” he says. The same would apply in the launch vehicle market.

Teague cautions that the command has made no “decisions on whether we'll continue with the existing Lockheed Martin programs of record or whether we would disaggregate and provide additional competitors.”

The space industry says there is no shortage of innovative products that are available to the Air Force. Many companies responded favorably to the service’s decision in May 2007 to create an “operationally responsive space” office to promote the development of small, low-cost satellites. As a result of steep budget cuts, though, the Air Force intends to shut down the ORS office in 2014.

Boeing’s Phantom Works unveiled in 2013 a new line of “reconfigurable" satellites called Phantom Phoenix. The company said these satellites aim to satisfy Air Force’s demands for disaggregated space programs.

PlanetIQ also announced it would jump on the disaggregation bandwagon and secure private investment to launch a constellation of weather satellites.

In the satellite communications sector, officials say, there is a clear signal that the government wants to do business in a different way. The Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center, in Los Angeles, is seeking industry proposals on how to design a new generation of “affordable” protected military satellite communications.

Industry experts suggest that separating the tactical from the strategic nuclear role would yield savings and make the space architecture less vulnerable to disruptions. In the case of AEHF, the tactical mission could be transferred to a hosted payload, or to a small free flying satellite on a commercial bus, says Chuck Cynamon, vice president of government business development at SSL Federal, LLC. The company received an Air Force contract to develop “affordable design concepts” for protected military satellite communications.

“This is the ideal timing for changing the space architecture,” he says, because current satellites are in production and being deployed, and the Defense Department has a few years before it has to replace them. The Air Force also has to prepare to meet growing requirements for satellite bandwidth, Cynamon says in an interview. Tactical communications demands are being fueled by the use of remotely piloted aircraft and by combat forces that need mobile networks. Military users expect to be operating in “contested environments,” he says. “That is what's driving the tactical needs for protection.” The Air Force, Cynamon says, is “paving the way towards a disaggregated strategy.”

This approach would be boon to the private sector, he says. “Many commercial vendors can provide important elements of a protected architecture, both in space and on the ground and space,” he adds. “The industrial base is strengthened and expanded when you look at the possibility of disaggregating secure communications and missile warning satellites.”

The government also would benefit from an abundance of commercial satellites. SSL alone launches six to seven commercial geosynchronous satellites every year, Cynamon says. Manufacturers are eager to lease their real estate to government payloads.

The Space and Missile Systems Center has created a “hosted payloads” office to coordinate military payload investments and identify suitable commercial candidates to host those payloads.

There is still some skepticism about commercial space, however. In its white paper, Air Force Space Command cautions about the promises of commercial technology.

“With regard to using hosted payloads on commercial and allied systems, attention needs to be paid to military requirements for radiation hardening, redundancy, and other protective measures,” the document says.

A hosted payload might be a government-owned sensor or communications receiver that would be operated from a commercial spacecraft. The white paper warns that these arrangements may not always benefit the Defense Department. “Being secondary to the primary satellite operator also increases the chances for conflict of interest. … The primary operator may want to relocate the satellite when the secondary payload operator, in this case the Defense Department, does not.”

The paper endorses the idea that disaggregating space systems could benefit the industrial base, but with a caveat. “More detailed study is required in launch costs, range operations and ground system complexity to ensure less costly yet increased numbers of satellites don’t offset expected savings.” Less complex satellites could cost significantly less than legacy systems, says the report. “But an increase in the number of platforms on orbit may eventually offset this savings through increased life-cycle costs from additional launches and ground system costs.”

The company that would be most affected by procurement reforms such as disaggregation, Lockheed Martin, says it supports these initiatives.

“It would not be appropriate for us to speculate on future Air Force acquisition plans,” says Mark Valerio, Lockheed Martin’s vice president and general manager of military space. “Disaggregation has been talked about a bit in industry. From Lockheed Martin’s perspective, we are not against it,” he tells National Defense in a statement. “We understand that our customers are facing challenging budgetary times and have to make some tough choices.”

Regarding the future of SBIRS and AEHF, Valerio says both programs are seeing reduced costs. “We are past development and in full production on both of these programs, under fixed-price contracts,” he says. “We already plan to deliver savings for AEHF five and six by reducing costs by at least 35 percent compared to the previous build.”

Three AEHF satellites are in orbit and the fourth is in production at the company’s Sunnyvale, Calif., facility.

The company in July delivered the third of four SBIRS satellite payloads. The SBIRS architecture includes a mix of satellites in geosynchronous Earth orbit, hosted payloads in high-Earth orbit, and ground hardware and software. Lockheed is working on the fourth payload and on satellites three and four.  The Air Force in May declared the first satellite operational. The second SBIRS spacecraft was launched in March. Lockheed has received contracts to procure long-lead supplies for satellites five and six.

Photo: AEHF, SBIRS satellites by Lockheed Martin

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