Failure to Launch: Military Space Programs in Search of New Direction

By Sandra I. Erwin

Satellite communications are in short supply. Networks are defenseless against cyber attacks. Spacecraft cost too much. And the acquisition process is out of touch.

This is only a partial list of what ails military space programs. Across the military, demand for satcom services, weather data and other space products is growing, but the U.S. government has fallen short in its ability to keep up.New requirements for space systems are coming at a most inopportune time, as the military faces draconian budget cuts that already have led to the demise of several big-ticket programs.

The fiscal crunch, however, might be the catalyst that forces the military to rethink how it buys space systems and to inject fresh ideas into programs, said space industry executives.

Pentagon and U.S. Space Command officials have spent months studying options on how to modernize satellite communications networks. They have concluded that the military needs a new “middle layer” of satcom services that fill the gap between the high-end — nuclear-hardened satellites that are becoming unaffordable — and commercial satcom that is not secure enough for classified communications.

This is an opportunity for the military to tap into new commercial space technology that may not meet 100 percent of its wish list but comes close, said Richard M. Lober, vice president and general manager of Hughes Network Systems’ defense and intelligence sector.

“You can have protection without it costing billions,” Lober said. It is well understood in the industry that jamming is a threat to all satellites, both military and commercial. “There are middle-of-the-road solutions that may not be nuclear hardened but they can do a good job against jamming.” Commercial Ka-band satcom networks are becoming more resilient, he said. “If a satellite fails or is jammed we can quickly move to another satellite and have the network continue to operate,” said Lober. It is not just the military that has stringent demands. Customers such as the banking industry and lottery agencies expect high-quality services because, if the networks go down, they lose millions of dollars.

The military will need to expand satcom capacity as it deploys greater numbers of unmanned aircraft around the world. Remotely piloted aircraft are notorious bandwidth hogs. Today, drones consume about 80 percent of the bandwidth that the Pentagon buys from commercial systems.

One way to increase capacity and save money, Lober suggested, would be to shift to Ka-band networks. Most military drones are wired for Ku-band.

The Defense Department also should overhaul its buying methods when it comes to space systems, he said. In the name of competition, the military breaks up the procurement of satellites, ground systems and terminals into separate programs, which are managed by different agencies, without an integrated plan for how to sync up the pieces. “In commercial industry, we look at space, ground segment and terminals all together. … Things are done in parallel and you make tradeoffs,” said Lober.

A case in point is the Navy’s mobile user objective system, or MUOS, a satellite constellation for narrowband tactical communications. The system was designed to provide secure high-speed voice and data services comparable to 3G cellular. But even though two satellites already are in orbit, only a handful of terminals are available that are compatible with the high-speed communications payload. The Army oversees the procurement of terminals under the joint tactical radio systems program, and has not made MUOS a high priority, Lober said.

“This is a tough problem for the military that goes to its acquisition system,” he said. Mobile satellite phones are available commercially that could run the MUOS waveform, but the military is stuck with a program of record, he said.

The poster child for dysfunctional space procurement is the “transformational satellite,” or TSAT, which was terminated in 2009. Like MUOS it was divided up so that one service would purchase the satellites, another would acquire the ground stations and each branch of the military would develop its own terminals. “Now you see the same thing with MUOS,” he said.

Navy Capt. Paul Ghyzel, who oversees the satellite communications program office at the Space and Naval Warfare Systems Command, told reporters last month that the MUOS waveform would be made available to vendors that want to incorporate it in their products. But it would still be up to the Army to make final buying decisions.

Jim Hanna, a defense and aerospace industry consultant at A.T. Kearney, said the government has to set more realistic goals in space programs. Too many project fail because they are overly aspirational, he said. Military satellites do phenomenal things but are too expensive. One alternative to traditional programs would be an “aggregated architecture” where there is a mix of military-unique satellites, payloads operated by commercial companies and leased capacity, Hanna said.

An infusion of fresh technology and ideas also is needed in the military’sweather satellite program, which has been in limbo since the 2010 termination of a replacement constellation for the national polar-orbiting operational environmental satellite system, or NPOESS. The projected cost of NPOESS satellites had ballooned to nearly $14 billion when the Obama administration ended it.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, NASA and the Air Force rely on aging satellites that are expected to go out of service over the next several years. The military needs to figure out how it will meet its weather data needs before current spacecraft and sensors run out of service life, said Eric Webster, vice president of weather systems at ITT Exelis, a supplier of space sensors and instruments that are used in weather satellites.

Congress appropriated $125 million in 2012 and 2013 for the Air Force to conduct a study on the future weather architecture. Exelis won a contract to probe ways to upgrade existing sensors.

The Air Force can choose to do nothing, and rely on NOAA and European agencies for weather data, Webster said. The problem with that strategy is that NOAA’s satellites will likely run out of service life in 2016, and its backup plan is to rely on the Europeans. Europe, in turn, will be launching its last polar satellites in 2018, with aging sensors, Webster said. Europe’s backup plan is to rely on China, which has invested in 22 new satellites that will be launched over the next five years.

The possibility of the U.S. government having to turn to China for weather data should spur the Defense Department into action, Webster said. Currently the military has two functioning weather spacecraft, and can tap into NOAA’s two satellites or the European Space Agency, which also has two. The Air Force expects to launch a new meteorological satellite next spring for the first time since 2009.

“If something were to happen to the one NOAA satellite, we'd rely on China for weather imagery,” he said. “There's now plenty of coverage so nobody is worried about it.”

After the NPOESS debacle, U.S. Space Command has been in search of lower-cost alternatives, but no firm projects have emerged. Exelis is offering a joint U.S.-Canada polar mission that would provide 15 years’ worth of weather data for a fee. “In the end, they could save billions and get better data than they could from their own program,” said Webster.

One of the reasons why the Pentagon is in a tough spot regarding space programs is poor planning, said Todd Harrison, senior analyst at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary assessments, who recently completed a study on military space.

Most satellites last 10 to 15 years, so there is still no sense of urgency, Harrison told reporters at a CSBA news conference. “The problem is that we have to start building systems now. We have to think what capabilities we need. It takes that long to design, build and launch new constellations.”

Harrison saidthe study was unveiled precisely to coincide with the Defense Department’s plan to redesign its satcom architecture. Since the cancellation of TSAT, he said, the strategy has been to “buy more of what we have.” That is not a bad thing, considering the Pentagon’s track record with satellite and terminal programs, said Harrison. “Our recommendation is, ‘Don't start new programs.’”

Projections for military spending do not bode well for space programs, he said. Any attempt to start a new procurement would probably fail because eventually the Pentagon will decide that the system is unaffordable, he added.  Satellites are just as vulnerable to programmatic threats as they are to physical attacks, he said. “Cost overruns and funding instability are serious concerns.”

Before new programs are launched, the Defense Department should rethink the way it buys systems, said Harrison. Buyers need to become more disciplined as they forecast future requirements, he said. Space program offices also should reduce staff and streamline bureaucracies to help lower costs, said Harrison. “That would be an important first step.”

Next would be to consolidate programs, budgets and operations under one service. The Air Force already has the majority of the responsibility, but programs such as MUOS prove the need for further consolidation, Harrison said. “We should reduce redundancy across the services.”

Topics: Procurement, Acquisition Reform, Defense Department, Space

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