Pentagon Undecided on Future Path for Space Systems

By Sandra I. Erwin

Defense officials agree that the military must change the way it buys satellites and space services. They just can’t settle on exactly how it should be done.

The debate over the future of military space programs has dragged on for years. There is consensus within the Defense Department and space agencies that military satellites are too complex, and expensive to buy and maintain. And everyone agrees that satellites will become increasingly vulnerable to anti-satellite weapons, jamming and cyber attacks.

There is also widespread agreement that the market offers attractive alternatives to the status quo. Companies are designing smaller, cheaper satellites that can do most of the functions now performed by military spacecraft. Satellites that already are being built for civilian users could host military payloads.

But parties remain split over how the Defense Department should go about transitioning to a less expensive, more secure future in space. Despite concerns about spending cuts across the military, the Pentagon still has a considerable budget of $17 billion a year for space systems. Some officials have argued the military should continue to develop its own systems because commercial technology is not as trustworthy. The U.S. Air Force, which oversees military space programs, and satellite manufacturers point out that the cost of space vehicles and launches has been coming down in recent years. Some officials have warned that moving away from traditional procurements in favor of commercial systems might be too big a risk.  

These are not easy decisions, said Gil Klinger, deputy assistant secretary of defense for space and intelligence. The Pentagon is looking to improve the resilience and lower the cost of space systems at a time when demand for services keeps growing, Klinger told the House Armed Services Committee.

The Pentagon’s space policy office and U.S. Space Command have been immersed in a year-long study of how the military could acquire “protected” satellite communications services at less cost. A Space Command white paper in 2013 noted that the U.S. military’s preference for billion-dollar “aggregated” satellites might no longer be affordable, and that the United States ought to consider moving toward small-satellite, distributed or “disaggregated” architectures that would be spread over more platforms and be more difficult for enemies to take down.

Any future modernization plan has to ensure the security of satellites and the military’s access to space services, said Doug Loverro, deputy assistant secretary of defense for space policy. “Over the last 15 years, other nations have watched us closely and have recognized that if they are to challenge the United States, they must challenge us in space,” Loverro said.

“We don't want space to become our Achilles’ heel,” he told industry executives during a recent gathering.

Loverro cast doubts on the “disaggregation” idea as a trendy concept that is potentially too simplistic. “I don't like the term disaggregated,” he said. “It’s too narrow.”

As part of its space strategy, the Defense Department should promote closer cooperation with allies so countries can pool resources, he said. The United States, for instance, will seek closer ties between Europe’s Galileo navigation satellite program and the U.S. GPS constellation. Similar collaborations should be pursued for spy satellites, too, said Loverro. The more allies the United States has in space, the tougher it will be for enemies to cause debilitating damage, he said. “The enemy is going to shoot down one satellite but not hundreds.”

In the area of satellite communications, the Pentagon depends greatly on commercial providers. That is not likely to change, said Loverro, although the Pentagon is searching for more efficient methods of buying commercial satcom. “We have a robust commercial industry, but we don't have a robust way of accessing it,” he said. The Defense Department now buys one-year leases, which in aggregate cost more than signing up for long-term deals.

The Defense Department is not going to stop buying commercial satcom, Loverro said, even though commercial systems are more susceptible to jamming and cyber attacks than military spacecraft.

The “protected satcom” provided by the Air Force’s advanced extremely high frequency (AEHF) satellites cannot be matched by civilian technology, he said. “You can't find that in the commercial world.” The state of technology in wideband communications satellites, on the other hand, is advancing rapidly in the commercial sector. The question is how the Defense Department should negotiate deals with vendors. “Why don't we have access to hundreds of satellites, in ways better than single-year leases?” Loverro asked.

The military wants to increase use of commercial Ka band broadband communications, he said, but it needs suppliers to accommodate some unique Defense Department needs. “Ka band is becoming the next unexploited area for the satcom industry,” he said. Services could be configured differently for military use, for example, by floating between commercial and military spectrum. That would save the Pentagon millions of dollars by not having to buy new receivers, said Loverro. “Why not use company [research and development investments] to make it easier for the government to exploit Ka band with current receivers?”

It should be no surprise that the Pentagon is struggling to define an acquisition plan for future space systems, said Todd Harrison, senior fellow and budget analyst at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. Harrison published a study a year ago in which he suggested the Defense Department should adapt its satcom architecture to operate in hostile environments, and do so at less cost. “Increasing protected satcom capacity by starting new programs or continuing to conduct business as usual is unwise given the fiscal constraints,” Harrison said.

Change is not going to happen overnight, said Harrison in a recent interview. In wideband communications, there is slow movement toward buying it as a service rather than owning satellites, he said. The military is not rushing into anything because it doesn’t have to, Harrison said. It owns a constellation of six wideband satellites made by The Boeing Co., and four more are under contract. As it considers how it will replace this constellation, the Pentagon might opt to buy wideband communications as a service, said Harrison.

The problem is that, to get the best prices, it will need to sign up for long-term contracts. “They will need help from Congress to get approval for multiyear leases and do it in such a way that commercial industry gives the Defense Department a good price,” he said. “They're not jumping on this right away. They don't need to, and they need time to work with Congress.”

Several members of Congress are watching this closely. In last year’s defense authorization legislation, Congress directed the Government Accountability Office to scrutinize the Pentagon’s plan for acquiring secure satcom.

For secret communications, the Pentagon has bought six AEHF satellites from Lockheed Martin Corp. What comes next after AEHF is the subject of contentious discussions these days. “There are indications that they're looking at alternatives like hosted payloads,” said Harrison. “But they have to work out the details.”

This is also an area where international alliances could pay off for the Pentagon, he said. Harrison has had conversations with Japanese government and industry officials on the idea of using Japanese satellites to host protected communications payloads for the United States. “It could be part of our protected satcom,” Harrison said. The Pentagon would save billions of dollars by piggybacking on Japan’s investments in satellites and launch vehicles. The other benefit is that it would forge ties with a key ally, Japan, at a time when the Pentagon is shifting forces to the Pacific Rim and will needed more satcom capacity. “If we're trying to focus on the Pacific, we need to expand our protected satcom capacity and work with allies,” said Harrison.

Taking a leap into nontraditional procurements is always difficult for the Defense Department, said Harrison. “This is a threat to business as usual.” Hosted payloads will not provide all the layers of protection that AEHF offers. “But you don't need it for tactical communications. You only need AEHF top level protection for strategic communications,” such as during a nuclear war. “Hosted payloads are a much cheaper way of providing protected tactical communications.”

It could take years for Defense Department officials to make up their minds. Gen. William Shelton, commander of Air Force Space Command, said it is too soon to commit to any particular approach to space acquisitions. “There are a number of studies underway right now to determine whether or not disaggregation is the right approach,” Shelton told the House Armed Services Committee. “It seems like it's a good thing to pursue based on the need for additional resilience in our constellations given the new threats that are coming.” All options are on the table, he said. “Hosted payloads is a possibility, disaggregation is a possibility, having more reliance on commercial services, having multiple sources, having international cooperation.”

Loverro noted that the military already has created several disaggregated space systems, although not deliberately. There are probably about 50 to 100 weather satellites, with a variety of sensors, all of which contribute to the weather picture. “If I were an adversary trying to target the weather capability, I wouldn't know what to shoot at, because there's just too many targets,” he said.

GPS is also a somewhat disaggregated system in that, if you lose one, you don't lose the capability. That makes the GPS constellation more resilient than the AEHF system where if you lose one satellite, you lose coverage for an entire hemisphere.

The Pentagon in an ongoing “analysis of alternatives” is examining different ways of acquiring protected satellite communications. “The focus of that effort is to identify alternatives beyond AEHF vehicle six, which is the last vehicle in the existing program,” said Klinger.

The Air Force is eyeing new approaches. It recently leased a transponder on a commercial satellite to test how the military potentially might go “all commercial” and forgo dedicated military wideband satellites.

Space industry executives, meanwhile, are warning the Pentagon to set realistic expectations. Secure military satellites supply only 3 percent of demand in current military operations. “The problem is that we want more protected satcom but government satellites are expensive,” said Rick Skinner, director of business and advanced systems development at Northrop Grumman Aerospace. The company is a major supplier of AEHF electronics.

Protected satcom demand seems to be “growing without bounds,” and the Pentagon will likely have to fill that need with commercial services until it can figure out how to build satellites more economically, Skinner said during an Aerospace Industries Association forum on Capitol Hill. The answer is to adapt existing satellite designs and build them with cheaper off-the-shelf components, he said. “You can make the satellites light enough so they can launch from commercial vehicles, and you should remove requirements we don't need such as nuclear command and control.”

Skinner said current billion-dollar spacecraft would be replaced by $350 million systems. “It's in the range of commercial satellites. … It provides 80 percent of the capability of AEHF for about one third of the price.” Without having to design all the complex electronics, production is “pretty inexpensive,” said Skinner. “The bumper sticker is ‘protected for the price of unprotected.’”

Skinner does not see a big future for hosted payloads. “Commercial operators have their own business models. If you have to pay the equivalent cost of a transponder, you will find out that the hosted payload is not as appealing,” he said. “The average cost could make the economics of hosted payloads a lot more difficult to achieve.”

The Pentagon should tread carefully as it plans future acquisitions, warns the Government Accountability Office. Defense officials are studying the disaggregation of space systems, but they lack expertise on the subject, noted Christina Chaplain, defense programs analyst at GAO. “While our prior work shows these concepts can potentially reduce costs and development time, the Defense

Department does not yet have the knowledge it needs to make a transition to disaggregation on a wide scale,” Chaplain said at a hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee’s subcommittee on strategic forces.

Chaplain also raised doubts about the credibility of the Pentagon’s past studies on alternatives satellite procurements. “Some within the department do not consider these studies to be conclusive, because they were either not conducted with sufficient analytic rigor or do not consider the capabilities, risks and trades in a holistic manner,” she said. “More analysis about disaggregation is important.”

GAO does have some good news for the Defense Department. Chaplain said major satellite programs such as AEHF and the missile-warning space based infrared system have overcome troubled pasts and are moving forward. “There are still technical and manufacturing programs affecting key programs, such as, MUOS [mobile user objective system] and GPS 3,” said Chaplain. “But the portfolio as a whole is not seeing problems on a scale it saw last decade.”

Topics: C4ISR, Procurement, Acquisition Reform, Defense Department, Space

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