The Investment in Space

Feb. 1, 2000

Gen. Richard B. Myers

The nation’s military space infrastructure is expensive. Within the Air Force, no one disputes that point, Gen. Richard B. Myers told the Air Force Association’s Los Angeles National Symposium on Nov. 19.

However, it’s worth the price, said the Air Force’s top space officer. Take Operation Allied Force. Without space assets, triumph would have taken longer and cost more, both in collateral damage and lives of allied service personnel.

In Los Angeles, Myers spoke as commander in chief of US Space Command and North American Aerospace Defense Command and as commander of Air Force Space Command. He was confirmed in October to become vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

“It is tough to put a price tag on the count of lives that I believe we saved due to space support in Kosovo. … There is little question that space was vital to the allied victory,” said Myers.

That operational experience aside, the last two years have seen some difficult times for military space. A string of launch failures has destroyed payloads worth $3 billion to $4 billion, including a Milstar bird lost last April and a National Reconnaissance Office spy satellite that was lost in August 1998.

These experiences have raised a difficult issue for Air Force Space Command: How should the Air Force mitigate the risks associated with spacelift

“The question is, how much risk can we afford to take in the launch business today?” said Myers.

Mention launch insurance and “everyone shudders,” the space chief told the AFA audience. That is because it would cost upward of 30 cents per dollar of asset value–for the Air Force, anyway.

“That is like paying 10 grand to insure a $30,000 car. It is not a very good option for us,” said Myers.

Another way of mitigating launch risk would be to plan for it. Buy more satellites than requirements call for, on the theory that some will be lost in launch accidents.

Or use the Navy’s method. The Navy only pays for space assets once they are on orbit and functioning-an acquisition strategy that drives purchase costs significantly higher.

“We must have a plan to mitigate the few failures that we know we are going to have over time. We can’t just present the Air Force with a billion dollar bill for Milstar and say, ‘Go fund it,’ ” said Myers.

The Air Force also needs a plan to defend its space capabilities, said the space chief. The nation’s control of space remains vulnerable, because space superiority is simply assumed-unlike air superiority, which is planned for.

Several countries already have lasers than can blind optical sensors on US satellites. Others are working on missile warheads capable of dispensing satellite-killing shrapnel in Low Earth Orbit. A nuclear detonation at the right altitude would leave people on Earth unharmed, yet fry every satellite in Low Earth Orbit.

“It is vitally important to protect ground launch and uplink­downlink components as well,” said Myers. “Many of our overseas ground sites are remote and potentially vulnerable.”

Critical space systems should be able to withstand attacks with little or no damage. They should be able to detect and report when they are under siege and locate and identify the attacking system. Ground controllers need to be able to quickly assess attacks and rapidly restore capability if needed.

Commercial as well as military systems are at risk. Eighty percent of the spaceborne communications used in the Kosovo campaign traveled on commercial systems.

“Clearly, our reliance on commercial space has created a new center of gravity that can easily be exploited by our adversaries,” said Myers.

New technology would provide some protection for satellites against attack. But it is impossible to upgrade a system that’s already on orbit-and new systems may be a long time coming.

“The bad news is that our GPS [Global Positioning System] satellites are lasting longer than predicted. Bad news because we have capability on orbit designed for a previous era and not responsive to our current needs,” said Myers.

At present, 27 GPS satellites are on orbit and another 18 are waiting on the ground. Most are older designs. A version that incorporates newer technology is not currently scheduled for first launch until 2007. The must-have capabilities of the newer satellite include a jam-resistant military signal called the M-code, two additional civil signals, and a much higher power level.

Traditionally, launch schedules have been based on life expectancy, the point being constellation sustainment rather than maximization of capability. That needs to change, said the space chief.

“We need to rethink our launch and acquisition strategies in order to get the right capability up there when needed,” he said.

Gen. Michael E. Ryan

As a nation, the United States has an ever-growing investment and interest in the medium of space, Gen. Michael E. Ryan, Air Force Chief of Staff, told the Los Angeles symposium. All told, space represents about a quarter of the overall US aerospace industry effort, he said. US government spending on space reached $30 billion last year. Private industry will reach and then surpass this level early in the 21st century.

The Air Force represents a large portion of US space efforts. The service accounts for 90 percent of DoD’s dedicated space personnel, 85 percent of its space budget, and 90 percent of its space infrastructure.

“Each year,” said Ryan, “space systems and space operations account for a growing share of the Air Force budget. It will continue to grow. That will be both an opportunity and a challenge for the US Air Force.”

The military implications of increased US involvement with, and reliance upon, space systems are immense. Space will become a place the nation must be able to control, as it controls the atmosphere, when need be. That will not be easy, and it will not be exact, said the Chief of Staff.

“As the second half of the 20th century has matured the air realm, the first half of the next century will mature the aerospace realm,” he said.

For Air Force purposes, space and air are not separate domains, according to the Chief. Instead, they are two parts of the same whole, as closely related as oceans and seas. “We should think of the aerospace domain as a seamless volume from which we provide military capabilities in support of national security,” Ryan told the symposium. “Space is a place, not a mission.”

Breakthroughs achieved during Operation Allied Force demonstrate the progress already made in integrating space capabilities into the service’s overall structure.

For the first time, the Air Force was able to almost instantly calculate the coordinates needed for GPS­guided munitions to hit targets that had been identified with atmospheric unmanned aerial vehicles. Predator video data was combined with three-dimensional terrain data from satellites, then beamed back to the cockpits of aircraft patrolling over Kosovo and Serbia.

Such efforts required much greater communications capability than was needed only a few years ago. Allied Force used five times as much bandwidth as did Operation Desert Storm, Ryan noted. The Kosovo effort connected 40 different locations in 15 countries using a variety of military and civilian lines and satellites, and many new ones were established.

“We worked over 44,000 spectrum requests, some terrestrial, some atmospheric, some for space systems, and, as you may know, these are very gnarly issues with our host countries,” Ryan told the AFA audience.

The Air Force is not the only US military service interested in space, but it is the only one with a full spectrum of aerospace capabilities. Maintaining that edge will be expensive. That is why partnerships are so critical, said Ryan.

Partnerships with industry are already a reality. In the Balkans, one experiment has forward air controllers using commercial satellite telephone systems.

“The first test occurred last December. The forward air controller dialed 911 Air Force and received an immediate close air support aircraft in his area,” said the Chief.

The aerospace domain must be integrated into how the service fights, Ryan concluded.

“We are on a journey,” he said, “combining and evolving aerospace competencies into a full-spectrum aerospace force.”

Gen. George T. Babbitt

All the top officials of the Air Force accept that space capability is a key to fighting and winning in the decades ahead. That raises another issue, said Gen. George T. Babbitt, commander of Air Force Materiel Command. How is the service going to pay for the space modernization that it needs

Further force reductions are not likely to pay for much. More re-engineering, outsourcing, and privatization won’t provide enough money.

Perhaps the military needs of America can no longer be satisfied by a flat or declining budget, said Babbitt.

“I expect the solution is a little bit of all. More topline and continued cost reduction,” said Babbitt.

One initiative that might help save money is greater use of commercial space opportunities, according to the AFMC commander.

A recent study by Air Force Space Command and AFMC’s Space and Missile Systems Center said that not many opportunities exist in this area. Babbitt said he was “surprised and a little disappointed” at this conclusion. He believes the subject deserves further debate before it can be dismissed.

Discussions about commercial space typically involve five mission areas, he said: launch services, range support, wideband communication, navigation, and remote sensing. Five obstacles to increased Air Force use of commercial services are also typically raised, he said.

The first is that use of commercial firms will establish a level playing field with adversaries who have access to the same services. That may be true in regards to navigation, wideband communications, and remote sensing, said Babbitt. But access to services does not automatically translate into combat capability.

“It takes a sustained commitment to tactics, doctrine, training, and hardware to fully exploit these space-based services,” said Babbitt.

The second obstacle is that the military requirements and program approval process remains too long and arduous for greater use of civilian-provided services. Also true–but perhaps not insurmountable, according to the AFMC chief.

Third, commercial firms often make use of proprietary technology and nonstandard interfaces and provide little coverage in limited market areas. Perhaps there is a way to lure the civilian world into greater standardization, mused Babbitt.

“What can be done to encourage commercial operators to comply with common user interfaces? What additional investments would be required to expand coverage into areas of military interest?” he asked.

The fourth obstacle is that industry is interested in commercial operation of ranges but uninterested in range investments. This reluctance should not limit the dialogue in what is one of the more promising areas for commercialization.

The last roadblock is that US government policy prohibits commercial investment in the GPS constellation. It also prevents the Air Force from any cost recovery from industry for its GPS investment. Yet few space systems seem better suited for some sort of commercial participation than the widely used navigation system, said Babbitt.

“GPS has created a thriving commercial market, and … continued Air Force investment in that constellation diverts resources from systems that will never have a commercial appeal,” said Babbitt. “We need to be sure before we rule out commercial options [in this area].”

Perhaps these obstacles are insurmountable and there truly is little room for greater involvement by private firms in providing key Air Force services. But more discussion needs to occur before that conclusion is reached, said the AFMC head.

“I don’t believe we have sufficiently explored commercial space options,” he said.

Sheila E. Widnall

One commercial-military space partnership that symposium participants all described as a promising start was the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle program.

EELV is a unique approach, said former Secretary of the Air Force Sheila E. Widnall in a panel discussion of challenges facing the space industry. The Air Force has been able to leverage a fixed investment several times over due to investments by its commercial partners.

“The goal of all of that is that the military, the Air Force, the national payloads should be able to get access to space at fundamentally commercial prices, and, at the same time, we should be able to get a very vigorous commercial space industry in the United States. It sounds like a win­win,” said Widnall.

But EELV aside, a number of important military and civilian launches in recent months have been lose-lose, in the sense that a string of launch failures has destroyed important payloads intended for both military and commercial uses.

Widnall was the chair of Boeing’s recent mission assurance review of two failed Delta III missions. She said that one problem was success. The reliability of the Delta II lured Boeing into applying some of the same engineering and oversight procedures to the Delta III, where they did not work.

The success of Delta II was due to years of incremental improvements, said Widnall. But Boeing underestimated the Delta III design challenge.

“The same kind of processes that were very successful in a mature vehicle, a successful vehicle with incremental improvements, are not adequate to deal with some major changes,” she said. “We believe this was a failure of systems engineering.”

The review’s first recommendation to Boeing was that quality must be the company’s highest priority. The group also urged a strengthening of systems engineering activities and more engineering oversight.

“An extremely important issue is to assure that adequate communication exists between design engineering and manufacturing,” said the former civilian head of the Air Force. “I think as we looked at some of the recent failures it was very clear that there was a problem of what I would refer to as ambiguous technical orders.”

Supplier management is also a big issue, as roughly 60 percent of the EELV is going to be supplier parts and components. Widnall also said her committee felt that launch vehicle teams should think explicitly about risk. Someone needs to consider the risk of failure due to proposed design, engineering, and manufacturing changes, she said.

“Finally, I think everybody who is involved in this EELV issue is thinking very seriously about a first flight that is some sort of a test flight of perhaps a less-than-critical payload,” said Widnall.

A. Thomas Young

A. Thomas Young, former president and chief operating officer of Martin Marietta, was the head of a similar assessment team formed by Lockheed Martin last May following Titan IV, Athena, and Theater High Altitude Area Defense missile failures.

The first conclusion that this team highlighted, said Young, is that military space is different from every other aerospace area, even other defense areas. Oversight is more crucial than anywhere else.

“One person can make one mistake that can [lead to] a total mission failure,” said Young.

Second, even when things are going well in the launch business, it is appropriate to worry. The Lockheed Martin-established group looked not only at launch failures but at near-failures as well and came up with a surprising number of what it termed “diving catches” (where heroic action by one person saved a mission) and “escapements” (where problems were caught by normal review processes-but not when they should have caught them).

“There were a large number of near-misses, diving catches, and escapements. In fact, of particular interest, there were many in the Atlas program, which has a record today of 48 consecutive successes,” said Young.

Every one of these semifailures should be treated as if they had caused a mission crash, urged Young. That means taking more corrective actions than might otherwise be deemed necessary.

Mission success, not cost, needs to be the top priority.

“You can’t get to cost by putting cost No. 1. You get to cost and schedule by putting quality or mission success first,” said the former Martin Marietta chief.

Loss of experienced engineers has hurt the space business, said both Young and Widnall. And accountability for mission success needs to be focused, with both senior management and engineers involved in success-related oversight.

“The responsible engineer for a component, a box, a subsystem, a software package really should have cradle to grave responsibility,” said Young.

Carol A. DiBattiste: The First Three Months

During her first 100 days as undersecretary of the Air Force, Carol A. DiBattiste has flown aerobatics in a T-38. She has participated in a three-ship C-17 low-level airdrop mission and pulled seven and a half g’s in a two-on-two F-15 air intercept.

She also got to send a navigation command to a GPS satellite–albeit under the watchful eyes of a room full of Space Command officers.

“Hopefully, the millions who use GPS each day didn’t know the difference with me giving the commands, but it was truly awesome and a wonderful experience for me to do so,” said Undersecretary DiBattiste at an AFA symposium in Los Angeles on Nov. 19.

And while she was getting a taste of all the missions the Air Force performs, DiBattiste listened-and then listened some more. What she heard was that the men and women of the service are excited about what they do–but also remain concerned about pay, health care, housing, retirement, and operations and personnel tempos.

Pay and retirement changes that take effect in 2000 should help, she said. The next step is to make similar improvements in the health care system.

“We are also working fast and furiously to address and to fix our recruiting and retention problems, and we need all of your help to do so,” she told the symposium.

Back in Washington, her three months on the job have exposed her to the tremendous pressures on the Air Force budget. She cited four major areas: the cost of the aging fleet, the need to improve quality-of-life programs, unexpected personnel and operational costs, and modernization.

Smaller aspects of modernization can be just as important as big programs such as the F-22, she said.

“We must do our best to keep our space launch range infrastructure modernization program moving forward,” she said. “I was told recently when I visited Space Command, as an example, that some of the ranges’ electronic patch panels that were used during John Glenn’s first spaceflight were still in use during his recent flight on the space shuttle.”

Partnering with other agencies and with industry is one way that budget pressure might be eased, said DiBattiste. Another is simply making the case for modernization plans and initiatives.

What is the requirement? What is the threat? Is it cost effective

“The better we can quantitatively answer these kinds of questions, … the better we can evolve our aerospace force in the 21st century,” the undersecretary said.

Peter Grier, the Washington editor of the Christian Science Monitor, is a longtime defense correspondent and regular contributor to Air Force Magazine. His most recent article, “New World Coming,” appeared in the December 1999 issue.