Air Force Space Programs on Hold as New Architecture Studied
Large satellite systems take a long time to develop.
As the years stretch on, the temptation to change requirements and add new capabilities is too hard to resist. For once the spacecraft is launched, it’s impossible to swap out the hardware.
Schedules slip. Production lines go cold, increasing the contractors’ costs.
By the time the satellite is sent to orbit, the technology aboard is already generations behind what is available in the commercial marketplace.
This was all described in a 2012 paper co-authored by Lt. Gen. Ellen Pawlikowski, then Air Force Space and Missile Center commander.
“Since the mid-1990s, we have seen some of the longest delivery times for major space systems since the beginning of the space age,” she wrote in “Space: Disruptive Challenges, New Opportunities, and New Strategies” published in Strategic Studies Quarterly.
However, deliveries of new space systems of late have all but come to a halt. The communication satellites being launched now are based on designs dating back to the early 2000s. The last major contract award was in 2008 for the third-generation GPS satellites.
That was also the year the Defense Department canceled the Transformational Satellite Communication System, or T-Sat, a six-year effort to create a next-generation spacecraft that came to naught.
Six years later, there are no new Air Force satellites on the horizon.
The Air Force is in the throes of conducting several studies that service officials say may lead to a radically new space architecture. Meanwhile, as the paper noted, getting space system acquisition right is more important than ever.
The nature of how it is employed by the military has changed over the past dozen years.
The Cold War era was marked by strategic applications such as nuclear command and control, and remote sensing satellites searching for rocket launches and large-scale troop movements.
The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq brought space down to the troop level with GPS, tactical communications and command and control of drones bringing immediate benefits to those who were fighting insurgents.
“Without exaggeration, the combat effects we have come to expect from our smaller, more mobile force structure would not be possible without space capabilities,” wrote Pawlikowski, who has since moved on to become the military deputy at the office of the assistant secretary for Air Force acquisition.
The buzzword in policy circles has been “disaggregation.”
Instead of large satellites and small constellations, the Air Force could deploy smaller spacecraft in larger numbers. It could also save funding by piggybacking payloads on other commercial or government satellites, a concept known as “hosted payloads.”
Placing an instrument on a large satellite that has extra space can reduce deployment time from seven to eight years to two to three years, she wrote.
“Disaggregation will allow us to realize more affordable and resilient capabilities for the theater war fighter while at the same time allowing smaller, nuclear hardened cores to be retained,” the paper said.
In the aftermath of a 2007 Chinese anti-satellite weapons test and incidents where GPS signals have been jammed, “resiliency” has been part of the equation along with affordability. Space systems have increasingly been seen as vulnerable.
Paul Hamill, director of strategy communications at the American Security Project think tank, said, “We have a system right now where we have big, one-off, specialized satellites that need huge rockets and engines to get them up there. … We need to move away from that model.”
He agreed with the notion of making space more “responsive,” with the deployment of smaller satellites that can be launched more rapidly.
“Let’s get smaller stuff up that can do bits of everything because let’s face it, if we have a state actor or non-state actor shoot one of these down, it’s not easily replaceable. If you shoot three down, we’re in serious trouble.”
Pawlikowski said the Air Force should adopt a “payload-focused” strategy where requirements for communications, sensors or other capabilities are more frequently produced and sent to orbit on smaller satellites. That will keep manufacturers’ production lines hot, stabilize requirements, reduce the economic consequences of losing vehicles and deny adversaries the opportunity to do widespread damage by destroying one spacecraft, she wrote.
If that is accomplished, “We can see a path to unwinding the vicious circle facing today’s space acquisition,” she added.
Todd Harrison, senior fellow of defense budget studies at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, was skeptical that the Air Force had put its space acquisition woes behind it.
“To go in a new direction, you have to start a new program of some kind, whether it is more of an existing system, leveraging current research or hosted payloads … and in this budget environment, that is incredibly difficult,” he said.
If the Air Force were to start a new, clean-slate design of a large communications satellite, it would likely repeat the mistakes of the past such as T-Sat, he said.
“I don’t think we have fixed the root causes. The primary problem with T-Sat was the temptation to place every possible feature on one satellite,” he said.
“We were trying to build the next big thing for protected communications and place all the requirements for wideband onto it. It proved to be too technically far reaching and expensive.”
He noted that after six years of work on T-Sat, the expected launch date had slipped by six years.
“We were no closer to launching it when the program was canceled than when we began,” Harrison said. “That’s the problem of building these big, “Battlestar Galactica type satellites.”
As the Air Force continues in a state of limbo when it comes to new start programs, Harrison sees a lack of interest on the part of Pentagon leaders. The series of studies the Air Force is conducting on new space architectures is just a way to buy time, he added.
“While everyone recognizes space as a critical enabler for the war fighter at all levels of conflict, from low to high end, it is not the sexy weapon system that puts hot metal on a target. So it doesn’t attract much interest from senior leaders,” he said.
The pause in acquisition programs could probably continue for three to five years, but after that, if the Air Force doesn’t kick off some kind of new program, it could begin to see capability gaps, Harrison predicted.
Said Hamill: The acquisition pause will continue “for as long as Congress is willing to let it go on.”
Hamill has seen renewed interest in space topics on Capitol Hill in the wake of the RD-180 rocket engine controversy. The Russian-supplied engines are critical for launching large satellites. Talk of cutting the United States off from acquiring the engines as tensions with Russia grew in 2014 prompted lawmakers to take a new look at the program.
Current National Defense Authorization Act language demands that the Air Force begins an effort to build its own heavy lift engines.
Incoming House Armed Services Committee Chairman Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, and ranking member, Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., will push for acquisition reform, and space will be a part of that, Hamill noted.
“I think the issue of us funding Russia has livened this issue up in Congress especially with … Mac and Adam. It has reawakened some interest in this,” Hamill said.
And presumptive Secretary of Defense “Ash Carter knows this issue back to front. It also helps that he a physicist,” he added. “I believe that he is going to take this issue on.”
Launch is important because the idea of disaggregated space architecture, which is more responsive to requirements, demands less expensive and dependable access to space.
Pawlikowski wrote that increased frequency of the launches will result in economies of scale and bring down prices.
Hamill said the private sector is ready and willing to step in and provide lower cost launches, and even build an RD-180 replacement if necessary, at no cost to U.S taxpayers.
“The military side of space issues and launch capabilities are stuck in the early 1990s. We’ve actually got private companies out there who can do this. Industry and the private sector have moved on. It’s the public sector who haven’t,” Hamill said.
On the terrestrial side, the Air Force recently embarked on a study to determine whether commercial satellite communications providers can take over the day-to-day command and control of military satellites using their networks of ground stations.
Four commercial satellite providers received contracts in October to study the idea.
A statement from one of the companies, Intelsat, noted that it alone had some 400 antennas scattered throughout the world with 99.9 percent availability. It costs a com-sat provider one-fifth of what it costs the Air Force to operate the same system, it said.
Harrison said the idea is certainly worth looking into, especially since systems such as the Air Force’s Wideband Global Satcom technology are based on commercial communications satellites.
As for military protected communications, which have unique command-and-control requirements, “probably not,” he said.