U.S. Army hopes to break high launch cost barrier to build its own tactical satellites
The U.S. Army is making headway with plans to demonstrate the utility of nanosatellites and small, low-cost, mobile launchers to provide direct support to deployed forces. Such assets would bypass the traditional data processing and dissemination system located in the U.S.
Though the Army's budget for space systems pales in comparison to the Air Force's multibillion-dollar annual satellite and launcher procurement request, the former's small demonstration project could spark a much-needed roles-and-missions discussion about which service is best suited to provide tactical spaceborne capabilities for soldiers abroad. This focus by the Army on the utility of small satellites comes as the Air Force is pushing to close its Operationally Responsive Space office, which was designed to find ways to reduce cycle time for spacecraft, including an emphasis on smaller buses.
While the Army is aggressively pursuing a plan to showcase these tactical capabilities starting next year, the Air Force is taking a longer view of infusing small satellites into its architecture by studying ways to augment the traditional satellites now 23,000 mi. up in geosynchronous orbit with smaller, more agile systems in lower orbits.
If the Army's plan prevails, the Pentagon could take an approach similar to that used for tactical intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) aircraft in parsing out responsibilities between the two services, says Brig. Gen. Timothy Coffin, deputy commander for operations at the Army Space and Missile Defense Command here.
One way to divide the workload would be to allocate responsibility to the Air Force for larger constellations to serve the “global community,” Coffin suggests. The Army, by contrast, could step in and handle special-mission tactical requirements, which will often be on low-orbit satellites with a short life cycle. This model, he says, is akin to the way ISR responsibilities are apportioned, with the Air Force providing much of the strategic collection services from its fleets and relaying data back to massive ground station infrastructures for processing, while the Army handles more tactical requirements, with products going straight to soldiers on the ground.
The Pentagon is providing low-level funding for three Army advanced-concept technology demonstration initiatives: Kestrel Eye, a 15-kg, (33-lb.) 1-meter resolution electro-optical imaging nanosatellite; Snap, a beyond-line-of-sight communications satellite; and the Soldier-Warfighter Operationally Responsive Deployer for Space (Swords), a low-cost, mobile launcher capable of lofting a 25-kg payload 466 mi. into orbit.
Each is designed to maximize use of existing commercial parts and suppliers, avoiding costly unique design requirements. Kestral Eye is already built and will be launched within the next year, as will the Snap spacecraft, Coffin says. The total cost of building Kestrel Eye, which employs a legacy star-tracker payload, is about $1.5 million, assuming production of 10 units per year.
But, the Army's quest for low-cost, responsive space support cannot be realized without inexpensive launch. Swords is designed to address that. In this program, the Army hopes to reduce the price to $1.8 million per launch, including range cost, by making use of commercial grade materials, not aerospace-grade components. And, the design will employ a Tridyne pressure-fed engine, bypassing the need for a turbopump. The concept calls for a “ship-and-shoot” capability that could operate from nearly anywhere with a concrete slab, and the mobile launcher is designed to be transportable by acargo hauler.
Ideally, the Army would like a small arsenal of these satellites and launchers in the event of a pop-up crisis, such as the Libya operation in 2011, or an outage of an existing satellite in orbit.
In years past, the Army eschewed such concepts because the price of entry to space was high; but a reduced price could allow for the service to view satellites in low Earth orbit much like an extension of their tactical unmanned aircraft fleet, which can relay communications or collect intelligence.
Meanwhile, the Air Force has proposed closing its Operationally Responsive Space (ORS) office, which was formed at the behest of a Congress eager to prompt the service to develop smaller satellites and launchers on significantly reduced timelines and cost. Lawmakers are now discussing the proposal in the fiscal 2013 budget. Lt. Gen. John Hyten, vice chief of, says the service has infused the precepts of ORS into its satellite program offices, eliminating the need for a separate organization to champion them. “There will be a role for smaller satellites” that can be launched more quickly, he tells Aviation Week during an interview here. Procurement mishaps in developing such constellations as the Advanced Extremely High Frequency ( ) protected satcom system and Space-Based Infrared System ( ) ballistic missile detector have given the service a “black eye,” he says. “We have to prove ourselves in the programs we have” before earning the credibility to move forward with major new concepts.
In the meantime, however, the Air Force is studying how to implement a “disaggregation” strategy for its constellations, a concept that calls for spreading resources to reduce the reliance on a few high-value satellites in a constellation. This is useful in the event of an attack on space assets—kinetic or otherwise—and would also act as insurance against an in-orbit malfunction.
The nearest-term constellation suitable for disaggregation is likely the Milstar/AEHF protected communications system. The systems onboard the AEHF satellites now being lofted 23,000 mi. into geosynchronous orbit are all designed to the highest standards of surviving the fallout of a nuclear explosion. Hyten notes that special operators are “carrying the nuclear survivability requirement” as they use large antennas to tap into the system (owing to the high satellite altitude) for communications in the Middle East, for example. If smaller satellites suitable for covert communications were lofted into a lower orbit, these soldiers could carry smaller radios and still achieve the service they need.
“AEHF [satellites] don't have to be as big or as complicated as they are today,” Hyten says. Through a disaggregation strategy, nuclear-hardened, command-and-control payloads could still reside on buses in geosynchronous orbit, while more tactical, augmenting payloads could orbit independently, he says.
Disaggregation is also being eyed for other satellite communications constellations as well as for the missile-warning system now in orbit. The Air Force is already committed to buying six AEHF and Sbirs satellites, so decisions on shifting to a new constellation are not needed immediately. Most likely, these decisions will be made in about two years, when the Pentagon assembles the Fiscal 2016 budget.
Hyten also notes that disaggregation could be employed to field some navigation payloads to reduce the instances of reduced GPS signals for soldiers in large cities or mountainous regions, areas that lack a line of sight to four GPS satellites simultaneously.