Air Force Takes Step Toward Allowing Contractors to Run Space Ground Systems

By Stew Magnuson

Photo: Air Force

The Air Force is kicking off a pilot program that may lead to contractors taking over day-to-day operations of some of its satellite systems.

Maj. Gen. David Thompson, vice commander of Air Force Space Command, said the service has an initiative underway focusing on its Wideband Global SATCOM fleet of communications satellites, where contractors will replace military or civilian personnel who would normally operate and manage the fleet of spacecraft. The request for proposals will be released to industry in the next few months, he said.

“We are about to go out and seek bids to have a firm come in and put contractors in seats today on the operations floor at Schriever Air Force Base” in Colorado Springs, Colorado, he said March 8 at the Satellite 2017 conference in Washington, D.C.The Air Force will also ask “for a plan or approach” that might someday take those operations and move them to a remote location, he added.

“That’s not to say we are absolutely going to take that second step. We are committed to taking that first step near term — that being in the next year or so — with the potential to see how that works and whether or not in the future we want to take that next step to have a contractor outsource operations to another location,” he said.

U.S. members of the commercial satellite industry have advocated for the outsourcing of everyday operations of certain fleets, especially those that resemble the types of spacecraft they operate. They could do it in their facilities at a lower cost and let the service free up its personnel for other duties. The WGS system is based on a commercial broadband technology. Other systems, such as the highly protected Advanced EHF satellites, are needed for command and control in the event of a nuclear war, and would most likely remain in Air Force operations centers. 

If the pilot program works out, it could spread to other systems such as GPS, Thompson said.

Meanwhile, Thompson said a push to bring the Air Force closer to the intelligence community may result in some joint satellite programs. Former Space Command Commander Gen. John Hyten, who is now leading U.S. Strategic Command, advocated for a closer relationship between the National Reconnaissance Office, the builder of highly classified spy satellites, and the Air Force.

“There are certain programs we are looking at closely, to see if in fact they are worthy of joint Air Force and NRO development,” said Thompson, declining to elaborate further.

Space, which is now seen as a war fighting domain as adversaries challenge U.S dominance there, has brought the two organizations closer together, he said.

“The challenges of the contestability have probably drawn Air Force Space Command, the rest of the DoD and NRO, closer together than they have ever been,” he said.

As far as the service’s ability to launch its satellites at an affordable cost, the industry is in a state of “flux.” There are several new rockets in development, which may provide more competition and lower costs, he said.

“From now until 2022, we are in an environment of great opportunity, but also of great challenge,” he said.

Earlier in the conference, Amazon founder and new space entrepreneur Jeff Bezos announced the development of his next-generation reusable rocket, New Glenn, and his intentions to use it to launch commercial satellites. By the end of the show, the company had signed up two customers, although he did not address getting Air Force certification for government launches.

Later in the conference, Blue Origin President Rob Meyerson said the company was aiming for 2020 to deliver the first New Glenn rocket.

Blue Origin’s BE-4 rocket engine may be used by the Air Force’s main contractor for heavy satellites, United Launch Alliance. It joins billionaire investor Elon Musk’s SpaceX as a launch provider. Another firm, Orbital ATK, lofts spacecraft but in lower orbits on smaller rockers. The Air Force wants competition in low, medium and geosynchronous orbits.

Meanwhile, the U.S. government wants to wean itself off the Russian made RD-180 engines that power ULA’s workhorse Atlas 5 rocket. It has a program in place with Aerojet Rocketdyne to possibly replace it, along with Blue Origin’s BE-4, which is being privately funded.

“We may find ourselves in 2022 with at least two, and perhaps three or more, in certain orbital regimes in which we have the opportunity to send out for a bid,” he said. 

Conversely, there are scenarios, depending on the vagaries of the market, and the commitment and business interests of the private investors, where the Air Force ends up with only one launch provider.

“That status today, I would say, remains in flux and probably over the next three years, we will understand fully whether or not we see a future that has two or more in all those orbital regimes,” he added.


Topics: Air Force News, Defense Contracting, Space

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