Turning a Corner on Space

Jan. 1, 2007

Air Force space programs, badly tarnished by serious technical and financial troubles throughout the 1990s, are in the midst of a far-reaching comeback. Even Air Force critics concede that the service largely has overcome the sorts of acquisition woes that sent the service’s major space programs spiraling off course into huge delays and cost overruns.

Today, the space community has put together a string of noteworthy successes. Top civilian and uniformed officials claim that the nation’s military space capabilities are probably at a historic peak, though the public is mostly unaware of this.

The turnaround has been triggered by a space cadre that has ever-increasing real world experience and a “back to basics” acquisition approach that features a return to the sort of highly focused attention to detail seen in Cold War space efforts.

Despite the accomplishments of that era, however, it is “not enough to go back to the Cold War architecture” for developing space capabilities, said Gen. Kevin P. Chilton, commander of Air Force Space Command.

The Cold War model was highly focused, but it addressed a largely unchanging threat and the priorities of a different era. Chilton and others spoke at the Air Force Association’s annual National Space Symposium, held Nov. 17 in Los Angeles.

Past space systems were built to support the Cold War concept of deterrence, with “long planning cycles” but “very short execution” periods, noted Air Force Lt. Gen. C. Robert Kehler, deputy commander of US Strategic Command. The priorities changed with Operation Desert Storm in 1991, when real-time response became the norm.

Combat Focus

Since Desert Storm, the Defense Department has developed a considerable amount of practical space experience—personnel have repeatedly forward deployed to serve in combined air operations centers or with ground force units in the US Central Command region.

Kehler said one younger space operator recently told him that he had “spent more time in the last two years in Kevlar than he has in a flight suit.” Space operators are “forward deployed with Army and Marine units, no different than anybody else that we would describe as being on the firing line.”

This operational immersion pays considerable dividends for the space community, Kehler noted, because if the space and combat communities speak different languages, space personnel and their initiatives inevitably will be marginalized.

The space community is quickly aware when the combat commander’s needs are not being met. Maj. Gen. William L. Shelton, commander of 14th Air Force at Vandenberg AFB, Calif., said that CENTCOM is engaged and using space assets every day. The operators there provide “almost instantaneous” feedback on space support that is “no holds barred,” Shelton said.

What is needed today for the end-users is responsiveness, such as through improved bandwidth to provide for battlefield communications, unmanned vehicle command and control, and video-intensive intelligence distribution systems. This drives requirements for more satellites; faster development of new systems; and a need to attract, develop, and retain top-notch scientific talent.

“This is the command to come into for recapitalization,” Chilton said. AFSPC’s modernization plans affect every on-orbit capability. “There is not a single constellation in Air Force Space Command we are not recapitalizing today.”

These systems are expensive and difficult to develop, but the demand is unrelenting. In the late 1990s in particular, “we had some tough times, obviously,” with Nunn-McCurdy breaches, said Chilton, as space development programs went well over budget and repeatedly failed to meet their schedules.

Despite the difficult past, however, critics are “bringing up history,” when they paint today’s space development efforts with a broad brush that tarnishes the programs with the legacy of past failures. Space professionals need to “focus on today and what we’re doing tomorrow,” Chilton said. “There are always engineering and technical challenges, because if there weren’t, we wouldn’t be pushing the envelope.”

The end users have constantly evolving requirements, which makes a “block” acquisition approach desirable. Air Force Undersecretary Ronald M. Sega noted that by developing several iterations of a space system simultaneously, the block approach allows operational forces to utilize new capabilities faster, while work continues on more advanced versions of systems.

Rapid change mandates that Air Force space developers stay on the leading edge of technology, especially if you accept the premise that the rate of change will continue to accelerate, Sega said.

Thousands Needed

We need “more talent in the pool,” and this is a “tough challenge” because everybody needs more experienced talent, said Chilton. The aerospace industry itself is thousands of scientists, technicians, and engineers short of its requirements, and the Air Force is competing for the same small pool of experts.

Fortunately for the developers of space systems and the eventual users, however, there is little opposition to plans to modernize the space-based systems “Everybody understands that we need to do this,” he said.

Officials cautioned that it is not a solution to return to the good old days of Cold War space system development, however.

Even the space-based capabilities of Desert Storm, sometimes referred to as the first space war, would be unacceptable today. The Army in 1991 was able to race through unmarked Iraqi deserts thanks to Global Positioning System location devices, and GPS also enabled the first widespread use of precision weapons in that conflict.

But looking back, the limitations in that war are eye-opening by today’s standards. For example, Chilton noted that bandwidth was in such short supply that Desert Storm’s daily air tasking orders—thousands of pages long—were faxed, printed, and physically flown around to operating bases and carriers throughout the theater.

Air Force Space Command’s modernization efforts have gotten so much negative attention in recent years that Chilton said his vision is for AFSPC to become the “acknowledged experts and leaders in fielding, launching, and employing air and space power” in the 21st century.

“The key word in my mind is ‘acknowledged,'” he said. There are various reasons the recognition does not currently exist. “Some of that has to do with baggage.”

The baggage had a very real cause. Lt. Gen. Michael A. Hamel, commander of USAF’s Space and Missile Systems Center, said the culprit was “the grand experiment in acquisition reform” during the 1990s. During that period, government took a hands-off approach to space acquisition, performed limited oversight of the contractors, and failed to rigorously enforce its standards. As a result, many space development programs became case studies in acquisition mismanagement, as costs soared and schedules went out the window.

Hamel said AFSPC’s back to basics approach to space acquisition involves rebuilding skill levels and mandating high standards that are “ruthlessly enforced.”

Roger A. Krone, president of Boeing’s network and space systems division, noted in an industry panel that award fees are increasingly being used as a financial motivator for industry, in order to drive accountability down to the contractors.

Successful modernization is a team effort between government and industry, Chilton stressed. The military space industry and the Air Force failed together in the past, and they are succeeding together today.

The results are undeniable.

Recent Successes

During the industry panel came word that Boeing had successfully launched a GPS-IIR satellite aboard a Delta II rocket out of Cape Canaveral AFS, Fla.

This was noteworthy because it was the 48th consecutive military space launch that successfully put its payload into orbit, expanding on a record that grows with every launch and stood at 44 consecutive launches a year ago. The current run began in May 1999; the previous record for successful military space launches had ended in 1971.

Later on Nov. 17th, Sega announced that the first SBIRS High satellite was on orbit and performing well. The Space Based Infrared System High is a next generation missile warning and tactical intelligence system that will eventually replace the Defense Support Program constellation. This was the first of two SBIRS satellites that will be placed in highly elliptical orbit; the payload should be fully operational in 2008.

The SBIRS High bird had completed its early on-orbit checkout and was “meeting or exceeding” all performance expectations, Sega said.

Compared to the DSP constellation, which was originally designed to detect large Soviet ballistic missile launches, SBIRS High promises finer warning and cuing capabilities, SMC’s Hamel said. It is designed for the threats of the future world, he said.

The example of the long-troubled SBIRS program raises a relevant point. Lt. Gen. Brian A. Arnold (Ret.), now vice president of strategic systems for Raytheon, said there have been no failures of satellites on orbit during the current run of successful space launches.

Arnold, who previously commanded SMC, noted that the space acquisition system has rightly been criticized for its past failures to meet cost and schedule requirements, but once the systems are operational, they perform magnificently—and often for years longer than their expected design lives. Getting the systems operational has frequently been challenging, but the satellites have clearly been built right.

Space Command is also moving forward with the development of two major new communications systems. First is the Wideband Global System (WGS), which was recently redesignated from its previous name of Wideband Gap-filler System. Chilton told reporters in a press conference that WGS was renamed from “Gap-filler” to “Global” because the system is not merely filling a gap, it is providing a major new capability.

Huge Expansion

The first WGS, which supplements the existing Defense Satellite Communications System, is scheduled for launch this year. Chilton said the system will be much more capable than DSCS, providing as much bandwidth as the entire DSCS system.

And AFSPC is getting ready for the first launch of the Advanced Extremely High Frequency (AEHF) Satellite Communications System, Chilton noted. With a launch planned for next year, AEHF will offer 10 times the bandwidth of the Milstar satellites it will replace.

Work also continues on the bandwidth system after next, the Transformational Satellite Communications System, or TSAT. While the Air Force is responsible for developing, building, and sustaining these on-orbit systems, dispersed forces from all the services rely on them. Chilton said the Army’s Future Combat System will be a major driver of space-based bandwidth requirements. Current plans call for TSAT to be operational in about a decade.

Even with the enormous growth in bandwidth that is coming, the military is adept at quickly expanding its usage to soak up every bit of capacity. “I don’t think we’ll ever have enough bandwidth,” observed Shelton. “There are some who said that TSAT is going to take away bandwidth as a constraint—I don’t think that will ever be true.”

Kehler said new space systems can help address “some of the toughest warfighting challenges,” such as mobile targets. “We’re counting on the space team to deploy new capabilities quickly.” That is not to say, however, that “big space” programs are bad and “little space” programs good, “which is the way this is sometimes characterized.”

Yet another announcement during the symposium was that Boeing was awarded a $674 million launch services contract for a “sustaining” amount of launch-service work. A separate contract will fund the actual equipment for the launches.

With space-launch financial security, the contract should allow Boeing and Lockheed Martin to move closer toward their goal of consummating the United Launch Alliance—a joint launch services company. (See “Washington Watch: Now, a Space Monopoly,” December 2006, p. 9.)

The Slow Road With China

The US has had long-standing relationships with Russia that grew out of many years of negotiation and confidence building measures, noted Lt. Gen. C. Robert Kehler, deputy commander of US Strategic Command. Cold War negotiations with the Soviet Union, and along with more recent agreements, created “a number of routine forums” for dealing with the Russian military to share launch information, verify arms control agreements, and build bilateral confidence and cooperation.

The US would like to have similar cooperation with China, but it has been slow going. “We’re not there yet; it’s [still] a good idea at this point,” Kehler told Air Force Magazine. He said that no Chinese delegations had come to STRATCOM headquarters in Omaha during his time with the command.

The “exact nature” of a military relationship with communist China “remains to be seen,” Kehler said. “At this point, we are trying to open the dialogue in the lane that we have as a combatant commander—which is with our military counterparts. Those dialogues are ongoing,” he said. “We’ll see what nature that truly takes.”

In another grand acquisition experiment from the 1990s, defense officials had arranged for competing medium-lift launch providers, on the theory that numerous commercial space launches would pay for the program and allow the Air Force to buy inexpensive “additional” launches. But the hoped-for commercial space launch business never materialized, making the dual provider arrangement economically unsupportable.

Because of the national security requirement for assured access to space—through two separate launch systems, so that a failure in one would not prevent new satellites from going into orbit—the Air Force has been footing the bill to keep the two providers in business ever since.

Defense officials feel that merged launch operations will still be able to offer assured access to space, while reducing costs. The ULA merger recently received regulatory approval—“we’re making progress and moving toward completing that,” said Chilton.

Even with AFSPC’s back to basics approach, the collapse of the space launch business case exemplifies the continuing problems the military space industry still feels because of actions taken in the 1990s. For the legacy space programs, industry still has to deal with the plans, budgets, and expectations of the past, noted Leonard F. Kwiatkowski, vice president of military space programs for Lockheed Martin.

The acquisition system has built-in problems. Boeing’s Krone observed that cost tends to become the dependent variable once a contract is awarded, meaning the price of a system depends on the requirements and schedule it is being held to.

Officials always say they want to “CAIV” programs—make cost an independent variable—but it is exceedingly hard to get commanders to agree to slower schedules or reduced requirements in order to hold the line on price.

Defensive Imperative

Several speakers stressed the need for the United States to be prepared to defend its space capabilities if necessary. There are gaps in space situational awareness, and Chilton noted that the US lacks the ability to judge potential adversaries’ intent when they launch a satellite into orbit. Shelton added that every medium the US operates in has eventually become a medium of conflict—“should we believe that space is going to deviate from this historical pattern?”

Kehler said the advantages the US gains from space systems, and its reliance on these systems, has “not gone unnoticed by friends and foes alike. It is a competitive environment, and I don’t mean that to sound sinister, but that happens to be a fact.”

The three-star added that STRATCOM has “been directed for a number of years to watch carefully, adjust accordingly, and—if directed—to be prepared to deny space capabilities to potential adversaries.”

The consequences of not defending the space realm could be severe. “If we didn’t have our space capabilities today, you would almost drive yourselves back to an industrial kind of warfare,” said Shelton, “a force on force kind of thing instead of being able to fight in the smart way we fight today.”

Most of the speakers agreed that military space has turned the corner and moved beyond the problems of the last decade. Jeffrey D. Grant, vice president of space technology business development for Northrop Grumman, cautioned that the industry cannot rest on its laurels, however, because “there are other corners” out there. Further, the military space community needs to keep looking for the next breakthrough to stay on the cutting edge, because merely protecting and improving existing products will not deliver revolutionary capabilities.

He gave the example of people using buckets to draw water from wells. A better bucket can improve the process, but is not a transformational capability—indoor plumbing with a faucet is. The space community must continue to look for those sorts of revolutions.