The Space Reviewin association with SpaceNews

SBIRS illustration
SBIRS is one example of military space systems designed decades ago that are under threat by a variety of forces. (credit: Lockheed Martin)

How military space programs need to deal with change

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The fabric of everyday life for all Americans, as well as the national security operations that ensure its continued survival and viability, is totally reliant on capabilities supplied from space. When we watch the Super Bowl in real time around the world, follow GPS directions, or when we search for the weather to make a decision on what to wear tomorrow, we are using and relying on space capabilities.

More importantly, most military operations depend on space for navigation and timing, real-time intelligence, accurate weather forecasts, battlespace awareness, strategic and theater missile warning, and wideband, as well as secure and protected, communications.

The asymmetrical advantage the US currently enjoys in space is under threat, both physically and fiscally.

The Department of Defense (DoD), and in fact most of the world, finds that capabilities supplied from space to be an indispensable resource. The DoD capabilities provided from space save lives and limits unnecessary collateral damage, and for the rest of the world, especially in the case of GPS, it makes our lives easier and more efficient.

Space’s unique environment and unmatched global reach make it Earth’s ultimate high ground. Space’s strategic vantage point allows the United States to view the entire planet, including areas of “denied access” (i.e., places we would be normally forbidden to see because of international laws regarding national sovereignty.) In fact, there are many missions that can be done optimally, if not uniquely, from space. Since space systems are always on alert and available in orbit, they are frequently first “in the battlefield” providing intelligence, battlespace awareness, and weather information.

Things like intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR), communications (wideband and protected and secure), missile warning (strategic and tactical), environmental monitoring (weather and fires), navigation and timing, offensive and defensive counterspace (OCS and DCS), and space situational awareness (SSA) can take advantage of the unique capabilities of space and provide the US with a significant asymmetrical technological advantage which trumps the numerical advantage of our adversaries.

In order to maximize its effectiveness, ISR needs to be able to overcome “denied access areas” and requires its eyes to reach everywhere to function effectively. Environmental capabilities require worldwide global coverage. SSA must be able to cover the vastness of space with the ability to see and track small, fast-moving objects that may pose a threat to existing space systems. Finally, global navigation and timing, a foundational capability for not only the US but for the world, needs to be done from space in order to provide comprehensive 24/7 worldwide coverage.

The asymmetrical advantage the US currently enjoys in space is under threat, both physically and fiscally, from the rapidly advancing technology of our adversaries that may render some of our systems ineffectual and ultimately obsolete, and from the tyranny of the Program of Record (PoR) that may be siphoning the funds needed for future space systems.

The US Air Force began pursuit of space missions in 1954. While the Soviets scored many space firsts, we not only caught up with, but surpassed Russia and every other nation in the world in the race for space. This was accomplished by the determination of visionary American leaders like Gen. Bernard Schriever and President John F. Kennedy, who correctly foresaw the potential of space development and redirected American priorities to advance that goal. The “Space Race” evolved from a two-nation competition to unquestioned American dominance worldwide.

Incredible as it may seem, we are only now deploying space systems originally designed in the 1980s and ’90s.

There is no question that our great country has been doing a superb job across all of the space mission areas. However, that dominance is now under threat on many fronts. Fiscal realities such as budget reductions and priorities of the scarce funds remaining; evolving capabilities of our adversaries; rapidly evolving new technology; changing national priorities; intentional and unintentional issues from an increasingly congested, contested, and competitive space environment; and deliberate challenges and roadblocks from rivals and adversaries are all driving us toward a more uncertain space future.

Incredible as it may seem, we are only now deploying space systems originally designed in the 1980s and ’90s. These systems have taken a long time to field, and while they are superb triumphs of engineering and program management, we are now in a much different environment that we were when these developments began. We now have four substantial challenges to confront: fiscal realities, physical threats, technological change and advances, and the tyranny of the PoR.

Fiscal realities, technological changes, and intentional and unintentional threats to our space systems are weakening our current advantages in space. In order to meet these challenges, the national security space community must continue to provide the same, or better, capabilities (i.e. rapid technology insertion), for lower cost, and maintain flexibility and responsiveness, so its capabilities can be assured to the operational users.

General John Hyten, Commander of Air Force Space Command has said he aims to shake things up in the space world. “We’ve become very comfortable in the status quo... now the hard part is convincing my airmen and the culture at large that we have to change,” he said. “The biggest concern I have is not pushing down new ideas, but pulling up new ones out of some very innovative people who are just growing comfortable with the status quo. We have to get back to that sense of innovation, back to the ways of creating something new.”

Hyten said he wants people to try new methods and exploit new technologies. He wants people to look outside the box at older technologies in new ways and perhaps with new purposes.

Change is hard because it requires a near-term investment without immediate returns. Even though we will get a long-term reward on that investment, 21st century American culture is geared to immediate gratification. Changing the space culture will be difficult and will not happen without a big forcing function.

Driven by the harsh realities of the current economic state of our nation, change in the space industry is definitely coming, whether we are receptive to it or not! The realities of the resulting budget reductions in the DoD, the dependency that our troops have on space, the advancement of the rest of the world in space, and the resulting congested, contested, and competitiveness of space are real, imminent. and alarming.

Obviously, this change in the culture will be a difficult transition, but a necessary one. The Air Force has embarked on this path but, as we know, titanic ships turn very slowly. Changing direction costs money in the near term, as well as requiring a new mindset, just when sequestration and partisan politics are challenging budgets. However, we must invest if we want to maintain the asymmetrical advantage of American space systems over their competition.

Challenges to our space advantage

Our first challenge is fiscal. One of the greatest challenges our nation has right now is the economy. It is clear that defense budgets have been and will continue to be affected. Because we are engaged across the globe, we must maintain the huge asymmetric advantages we provide to our service men and women from space, and this places even greater pressure on an already strained budget.

The second area of challenge is physical: space has become congested, contested, and competitive. The threat of collision, intentional and unintentional, is real. We must reduce our vulnerability to intentional and unintentional occurrences. Russia has had the inherent and demonstrated capability to put our space systems and capabilities under threat since the late ’60s. China has demonstrated this capability at low altitude in 2007, and recently demonstrated the capability to perform offensive counterspace actions much higher altitudes, threatening many of our key capabilities at geosynchronous orbit.

Not only do we need the ability to defend our space systems, we also need to be able to deny our adversaries space capabilities that may be used to put our troops or our national interests under threat. Therefore, we must provide OCS and DCS capabilities: kinetic and non-kinetic, reversible and irreversible.

To be able to effectively, efficiently, and intelligently use OCS and DCS capabilities, we must improve our SSA capabilities and provide more than just tracking and cataloging of space systems; we need to be able to perform characterization, determination of intent, and custody of potentially dangerous space objects. We must provide resilient solutions that can react to systems that are lost, either intentionally or accidentally, with a combination of alternatives such as orbital and ground spares, higher density constellations with more systems, defense approaches, agile maneuver capability, and rapid reconstitution.

Not only do we need the ability to defend our space systems, we also need to be able to deny our adversaries space capabilities that may be used to put our troops or our national interests under threat.

The third challenge is the evolving capabilities of our adversaries. There are now about 60 nations in space. With the significant evolution and advances of international and commercial space, potential international rivals are rapidly developing new capabilities which will challenge our ’80s and ’90s technology. The Chinese DF-21 missile already poses a challenge to our current ISR sensors. Along with their offensive counterspace capabilities demonstrated in 2007, future advancements in their space capabilities are a certainty. Additionally, Russia’s new commitment to developing advanced capabilities, and the intent of other potentially adversarial nations to become competitors in the latest space race, gives us pause.

The fourth challenge is the tyranny of the Program of Record. Many of our past policies were originally perfectly appropriate for their era, but “appropriateness” is an ephemeral term, and circumstances are always temporary. They continue to evolve like that trouser waistline that fit so well when you were in college.

Between five and ten years ago, “laser focus” on execution of the PoR was absolutely necessary to deliver cutting-edge technology essential to that generation of systems. Still, across the board, the programs were in developmental trouble, and executing their development in an effective manner was essential. Even removing money from the program offices for anything not directly in support of the PoR’s execution was critical to maintenance of this laser focus.

However, development cycles for this generation of programs are past, and they are now in production. While execution remains extremely important, it should not necessarily be considered to remain at risk because of everything else a system program office has to do. This approach, while it was essential to the turnaround in the development of this generation of space programs, should have had an expiration date. Its continued use presents a growing risk to the future of these critical space missions.

Of course, we still need to maintain strong attention to the continued execution on the production of these systems: we are not building washing machine but instead unique and complex space systems. However, at the same time we need to also put focus and effort into the next generation of programs. Due to the huge schedule delays for current PoRs, coupled with already long program schedules, this generation of programs could be flying 1980s technology well past 2025. Is it a smart strategy to be flying 45-year-old technology when the rest of the world, including America’s enemies, is rapidly exploring and exploiting new technologies?

What we must do to maintain our advantage

The answer to the fiscal challenge is to move to affordability. Ideally, our primary mission should be providing the men and women in service of our country with the finest space capabilities in the world regardless the cost. However, we simply cannot afford to continue to buy the same type of systems in the same way we have for the last twenty years: it is just not affordable or realistic in our current global environment. So, one of these three choices has to be made to keep the American space program viable and competitive: (1) build fewer systems for each mission, (2) abandon one or more of the missions, or (3) fly mixed disaggregated constellations with shorter life times for more rapid technology insertion and lower cost for part of, or for all of the constellation.

There are many initiatives to lower the cost of buying space systems. However, there is not much profit margin left for private enterprise to wring out on their end, if the current system architecture paradigms remain. For the last 20 years, there have been numerous affordability initiatives to take out marginal costs associated with fielding our space systems. These initiatives have succeeded, for the most part, and today we have a motivated contractor community that has reduced overhead, moved to more commonality, and increased efficiency. At the same time, the government has moved to more affordable ordering quantities, moved to better tailor acquisition directives to be more efficient, and has gone to multi-year buys, whenever and wherever it can.

Additionally, we have moved to international partnerships, as in the Wideband Global SATCOM program, and are moving to expand this into other mission areas. These initiatives have been extremely successful and have yielded savings. However, there is not much more left to cut, and continuing to provide these cutting-edge space capabilities with additional budget cuts is not reasonable.

There are two areas to look at when trying to reduce budgets: “how we buy” and “what we buy.” We certainly have worked very hard on how we buy, but to make a quantum improvement, we need to look at what we buy.

The answer to the threat of intentional and unintentional threats in space is to move to availability and resilience.

We now have a robust and effective international commercial space business sector. We can certainly better leverage this sector. In the past, satellite buses had been unique, customized for each individual program or mission. We not only had to develop a unique bus, but we have to keep the people who built it on board to handles issues and anomalies. Instead, we can buy these off commercial lines, eliminating costly development and the need to keep the “standing army” ready to solve issues. We have demonstrated commercial rideshares can also be used in selective situations, which not only bring the advantages of a commercial bus, but also substantially reduce launch costs.

Therefore, in order to continue to improve affordability, we need to do things differently, buy different things, and buy them differently.

The answer to the threat of intentional and unintentional threats in space is to move to availability and resilience. Resilience is another key feature we must include in our future systems: assuring these capabilities are there when there are needed regardless of the threat.

Constellations composed of a few expensive systems will become extremely vulnerable, as spares are too expensive to build. There is no question that our current architecture is not resilient, but there is also no easy way to define a set of metrics which can objectively measure resilience.

No matter how you quantify it, resiliency requires architectural and operational alternatives to assure space capabilities are there when the operational users need them. We know the features of architectures that can contribute to resilience. For example, asset hardening, more targets for adversaries to address, spares, maneuverability, active defense, rapid reconstitution, and disaggregation are all architectural alternatives to improve resilience. People argue that any one of these is probably not adequate in and of itself, and that is true, but we cannot ignore any of these as we move to the future. A larger number of less expensive systems makes the calculus for anyone contemplating an attack on our space assets unaffordable. So, lower cost and larger quantities are extremely desirable.

Operational alternatives in OCS/DCS, including both reversible and irreversible effects, and kinetic and non-kinetic options, should be available as potential tools to further enhance resilience. We need defensive counterspace capabilities and strategies to assure space capabilities are there when needed, and offensive counterspace capabilities to eliminate adversary space capabilities that put our troops and national interests under threat.

The answer to the ability to react to rapid technology advancement by our adversaries is technology insertion. We are in a world of accelerated technology advancement. Taking seven to ten years to develop and deploy operational space systems is no longer efficient or acceptable. We simply cannot afford to buy and field technologically obsolete systems up to a decade after we start. We must find affordable ways to insert new technology within a shorter time span.

One possible solution is to build shorter lived, single-purpose systems, which cost less and can be built and tested in a timely fashion. Of course, to effectively accomplish this we must also lower the cost of launch. There is a positive feedback loop in this solution because lower cost systems, with shorter lifetimes and spares, allow us to use smaller launch systems with less mission assurance overhead, thereby reducing launch costs. You cannot significantly reduce launch cost if you don’t fundamentally address the cost of the system.

We can certainly address the cost of systems by utilizing the capabilities of the commercial space community. Using commercial buses gets us out of the mode of having to maintain unique buses and the staff that goes with them. Using commercial rideshares has the additional benefit of vastly reducing or eliminating the cost of launch. Going to open systems will reduce the development costs of ground systems while making them more effective by allowing better data sharing.

Also, while the space community has been told that they must mature current technologies before starting new programs of record, they get hammered and have roadblocks thrown their way when they try to fly demos. If the space community is not allowed to mature the next generation of technology through low-cost demonstrations and they start the planning for the next generation of systems before we have been able to demonstrate the pacing technologies, they are may be burdened with expensive systems that could again take a long time to develop.

We need to end the tyranny of the Program of Record and be innovative. We need to define the current thought on future end state. We then need to have specific milestones and goals on the path to get there.

The answer to the tyranny of the program of record is to change what we buy and support the Strategic Modernization Initiative (SMI). We have to change the culture that prepares us to refight the last war. As General Hyten has said, “We need to prepare for the wars of the future, and we need to have newer technology to continue to dominate the space regime.” General Ellen Pawlikowski realized that a few years ago, and developed a funding line called the Strategic Modernization Initiative (SMI), which is strongly supported by the Air Force and the DoD. However, fully half of this scarce resource has been siphoned back into the PoR’s rather than being used for the next generation of programs. This decision has hamstrung our ability to meet our future challenges and should be revisited to reflect current budgetary and security realties.

It has been widely recognized and recommended that before we start a new PoR for the next generation of space systems, we must first drive down their technical risks with flight demonstrations. The Air Force has embraced this and has proposed various flight demonstration programs, even reorganizing the Space and Missile Systems Center to have an organization to focus on this. However, it has been next to impossible to get stable funding for these demonstration programs.

To effectively maintain our position as the leader in space, we need to increase funding for SMI and focus it on the next generation, so we can field systems that can adequately meet the coming generation of threats in an innovative and cost-effective manner. We need to fly more demonstrations like the Commercially Hosted Infrared Program (CHIRP), where we can buy down technology risk in an affordable fashion, and be ready to institute low-risk, next-generation programs.


Ultimately the answer to these challenges will entail a combination of solutions mentioned above. What is clear, however, is that we must begin investing in solutions for affordable technology insertion and availability/resilience now.

We need to provide space capability that is affordable, on the leading edge of technological capabilities, can respond to the threats of fiscal and physical realities, and adversaries expanded technical capabilities threats. Most importantly, we must have assured availability and resilience. We must build on the success of our demonstrated commercial ride share, such as CHIRP, and expand to the use of commercial buses allowing the national security space to focus on the payload and ground support.

We should move away from dedicated single purpose ground systems and expand open systems, data sharing, and common tracking, telemetry, and command. In addition, we need to move to shorter development timelines and shorter design lifetimes to reduce cost and increase technology refresh in our systems, especially where our adversaries are adding more challenging capabilities to their systems.

General Hyten’s priority for Air Force space is to win today’s fight and prepare for tomorrow’s. To prepare for tomorrow amid the challenges discussed here, we need a new architecture, which will require change in both what we are buying and how we are buying it.

Change will not happen without an executable plan. There is no doubt this change is necessary, but, we need a specific roadmap to get there. We need to end the tyranny of the Program of Record and be innovative. We need to define the current thought on future end state. We then need to have specific milestones and goals on the path to get there. This also needs to be a cohesive story in order to get congressional support, with strong support from space leadership.

We have always been ahead of the next block of a system before the current block has been deployed, so now is the time to move forward or risk being swept behind by our own inertia to change. Our adversaries’ willingness and motivation to rapidly innovate could well put our warfighters at a great disadvantage in the future.