Space Systems Will Struggle to Support Strategic Shift to Asia-Pacific
By Dan Parsons
A new focus on the Asia-Pacific region, along with impending budget cuts — will make delivering space-based services to military users more challenging, the Defense Department's top civilian overseeing space policy said Feb. 7.
“Space costs too much,” said Charles L. Beames, principal director of space and intelligence for the office of the undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology and logistics. “We’re still coasting, really, on a mindset that was set a long time ago during the Cold War where we had space superiority.”
“The reality is that space is more of a service and a commodity that needs to be provided to war fighters. We need to think about it differently,” he said at a National Defense Industrial Association breakfast.
The Obama administration and Pentagon leaders have listed intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance technologies among the line items it wishes to protect from severe budget cuts, said Rob Hegstrom, director of battlespace awareness and program assessment for the undersecretary of defense for intelligence.
“Even if we’re protected, though, we’re usually getting squeezed pretty hard,” he said. “I think those pressures are going to be there again."
Beames encouraged military and industry leaders to regard space as a staging area for important technologies that assist troops on the ground, like GPS satellites and other sensors.
The services space systems provide will become even more important when considering the U.S. military’s shift in focus to the vast Asia-Pacific region — a goal the Obama administration has expressed, but which the military's space agencies will have a difficult time supporting, said Beames.
“That’s a huge challenge for a lot of reasons,” he said. “It is certainly a different part of the world in terms of its geographic challenges. It’s an expansive area. The terrain is very different. What we’re looking for is different. The threat is different.”
Intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities rely heavily on satellite communications, 80 percent of which is commercial capacity. Providing coverage for a military stretched across the thousands of miles of the Pacific is “physically not possible” within the military’s current satellite communication capacity, Beames said.
Meanwhile, commercial providers of satellite communications have said they don't have the infrastructure to support the military in this vast region.(See story in the January issue of National Defense Magazine).
“So, what are we going to do about that?” he asked. Under the dual pressures of the “thumbscrews” of previous budget cuts and the potential of sequestration, affordability is the name of the game, Beames said.
“It’s foolish to begin development of a program where everyone sitting at the table knows there is no way we can afford to actually go into production and fill out the constellation [of satellites],” he said. “We’ve got to establish affordability as a requirement early on in the development of a program.”
Ron Pontius, director of command and control for the undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology and logistics, suggested designing different procurement processes for different items to ensure that marquee procurement programs don’t filch funding from other mission-critical systems.
“In the future, the acquisition process for a major weapons system, for example, may not be the same as for C4ISR enabler-type things,” he said.
Other tactics available, which Beames said are being pushed by Frank Kendall, the Pentagon’s chief acquisition officer, include encouraging competition and “evangelizing” commercial-off-the-shelf technologies. Both are strategies being perused by all Defense Department buyers as methods of shaving research-and-development costs and avoiding the expensive and lengthy procurement boondoggles of the past.
“We should do what we can without incurring to much risk to encourage competition,” Beames said. “There are many space systems that are getting ready to undergo a lot of development work. It is too [risky] to change the prime contractor because there is a lot of intellectual capital there that shouldn’t be lost in an ongoing mission.
“But … the government can say that we want you to compete some of the subsystems. That way we’re not throwing everything out the window but we’re getting the benefits of good, old-fashioned American capitalism,” he added.
Kendall, “in a serious way, is focused on improving efficiency, affordability and accountability” with his Better Buying Power 2.0 plan to change the culture of military acquisition, Beames said.
It will take collaboration between industry and Pentagon buyers as well as critical thinking that has been hamstrung by complacency and runaway regulations put in place since the Cold War to reach these goals, he added.
“We have gotten to a point where we have too many rules. With so many rules, it is difficult to change and adapt … to face the challenges we face in the future. We have sort of thrown out common sense in a lot of this," he said.
“We have allowed process to substitute for critical thinking, which has become a sort of death spiral,” he said.
That death spiral is all but certain, however, if sequestration is allowed to suck $500 billion from defense spending over the next 10 years, Beames said.
“For those of us inside the beltway that worry about budgets and systems and that kind of thing, it’s all going to be tough but … let’s just hope it doesn’t happen,” he said. “It will be brutal. It will end up costing us more money than it will save in the short term.”
Photo Credit: Air Force