Given Budgets, the Stars Show Uneasy Future for Air Force Space Systems
Gen. William Shelton, commander of U.S. Space Command, said strategic acquisition choices that will affect U.S. space capabilities beyond 2025 must be made in the next year.
“We’re working very hard to find the nexus of required capability, affordability and resiliency,” Shelton said at a Washington, D.C., breakfast hosted by the Air Force Association. “If anything, the requirements for space will go up. It may be very different architecture. We’re locked in where we are until the mid-2020s. But because of budget timelines and because of development timelines we have to make decisions in the next year or so about our future.”
Those decisions must balance future capability needs with current and ongoing fiscal realities. Already, some of the Air Force’s modernization priorities have to compete with other Defense Department acquisition programs, he said.
As the global strategic environment changes, the United States may not need the same space capabilities it did during the Cold War, he said.
The space-based infrared system, or SBIRS, is one capability that could be maintained for less cost than simply buying a new single-function constellation, he said. The Air Force is under contract to buy six SBIRS satellites that will be operational until 2020.The spacecraft is designed to warn the United States of a strategic nuclear strike by monitoring the planet for missile launches.
“There are some really hard decisions we’re going to have to make after vehicle six,” Shelton said of SBIRS.
“We believe this calls for a different kind of capability,” Shelton said of a future space environment beyond 2020. “Perhaps a disaggregated capability where you take strategic missile warning and tactical missile warning and separate it and put it on two different satellites. Perhaps you could post some of these infrared sensors on other platforms.”
One such platform is the third-generation GPS spacecraft that are set to begin launching. Shelton said the Air Force is considering placing nuclear detonation and launch sensors aboard those satellites instead of replacing the entire existing SIBRS constellation. Eight total GPS3 satellites are under contract.
“Nine and out is now a question mark about these alternative architecture ideas,” Shelton said. “Not every GPS has to have an [nuclear detonation sensor], but that has to be decided within the next year or so.”
Shelton also questioned the wisdom of continuing to launch Advanced Extremely High Frequency (EHF) satellites into orbit. Designed to provide emergency communications during or in the aftermath of a nuclear strike on the United States, each Advanced-EHF orbiter costs billions to build and launch. They are critical-capability satellites vital to national security, Shelton said. But the current method of maintaining that capability is unsustainable, he added.
“It’s the satellite that just has to be there,” Shelton said. “But does it make sense to continue down the path that we’re on? … We’ve got to find alternatives that are more resilient and more affordable.
“In this budget climate, is that really where we want to be? In my opinion it’s not,” he added.
Another one of Space Command's most important jobs is tracking objects that pass over the United States. The current space surveillance system will reach the end of its service life in 2017, Shelton said.
“We’ve got no follow-on for the program, even though we know this is critical capability, the affordability issue has driven us to not have a follow-on program wedged in just yet. But, we are working hard to wedge that in the ’15 budget and we’ll see where that comes out. It’s a capability that for space situational awareness just has to be there.”
That system’s replacement is colloquially called the “space fence,” an array of ground-based, upward-looking sensors scattered across the country that will track every orbiting item that passes over the United States, including small pieces of "space junk" measuring less than a meter The Air Force is ready to award a contract to build the fence, but that award has been held up by the Pentagon’s strategic review of acquisition priorities.
To ensure that top priority programs like the space fence don’t fall prey to budget hawks, the Air Force can rework some of its systems that are already under development, Shelton said.
Tough decisions will be necessary to weather the current budget storm, even as space and cyberspace capabilities are becoming more important to U.S. national security, Shelton said. From humanitarian relief efforts in Africa to combat operations in Afghanistan, everything the military does is critically dependent on satellite communications and information gathering, he said.
Meanwhile, sequestration has forced the Air Force to furlough its civilian workforce for 20 days before the end of the fiscal year and Space Command is still $4 million to $5 million short of the funding it needs to reach the end of the year, Shelton said.
Recognizing the increasing importance of its role in the cyberdomain, the service is carving out 1,500 airmen from other units to establish a new group dedicated to offensive cyber-warfare, he said.
“In every strategic review that I’ve seen, space and cyber are mentioned prominently as things we have got to have and things we need to improve,” he said.Photo Credit: Air Force