COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — The new chief has “laid his soul bare” to ask industry for help in crafting more resilient, affordable and — perhaps — simple satellite constellations for the future.
This is U.S. Air Force Gen. William Shelton’s first time addressing the National Space Symposium here as the leader of Air Force Space Command, but he has been a part of the space community during a decade of poor contracting performance and major problems in delivering technology. He acknowledges that the “die is cast for the next 10-15 years” because the military must stick with the programs now being built and development cycles take years. However, “we have an opportunity right now to start turning this ship,” he says.
Furthermore, the downward pressure already being felt on the defense budget is forcing officials to consider new ways to deliver space capabilities at potentially lower cost and with, hopefully, lower-risk approaches to development.
Speaking to an audience of aerospace industry officials and government leaders, Shelton asked for help in shifting the paradigm for crafting constellation architectures and development programs. “I am absolutely convinced there are better ways to do the mission we are charged with doing,” he says.
“Disaggregating” spaceborne capabilities is among the ideas he is considering. This translates into potentially building simpler satellites and fielding more of them more frequently. The Pentagon needs to consider “not building such lucrative targets,” Shelton says.
This echoes a push byGen. James Cartwright, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who says the U.S. cannot afford all of the desired space capabilities it has planned. As a result, he is open to turning to allies for help.
One mission area ripe for review is overhead persistent infrared sensing, which provides early warning of ballistic missile launches.
Air Force Space Command is preparing to loft the first Space-Based Infrared System () satellite into geosynchronous (GEO) orbit next month. Though this latest missile warning satellite is the first of a new generation, development delays mean officials will be fielding technology conceived in the mid-1990s.
The Air Force is in the midst of crafting an acquisition strategy for Sbirs 5 and 6 aimed at reducing cost. But with GEO 1 costing well more than $1 billion, hopes of the cheap system conceived 15 years ago have long been dashed.
The Pentagon already is exploring new alternatives to Sbirs beyond GEOs 5 and 6. Officials are considering new architecture approaches for this mission area and others that could call for more satellites, rather than the four Sbirs required in GEO to form a constellation. This would improve “passive resilience” in the event one satellite became disabled owing to technical, environmental or hostile causes, Shelton says.
“Right now I’m thinking more of disaggregation, not aggregation,” he says.
Military payloads hosted on commercial satellites, single-mission small satellites and commercial partnerships are among the ideas percolating at Air Force Space Command.