The senior officer overseeing U.S. Air Force Space Command says he refuses to lose sight of looking toward a future of more resilient architectures for spacecraft and launchers, though the near-term focus is on slicing $508 million from its operations and maintenance budget through the end of September.

The cut is owing to the Budget Control Act, and in accordance the command is reducing several of its key capabilities. Among them was a recently scrapped plan to cut the Cobra Dane radar, an L-band active electronically scanned array system based in Shemya, Alaska, designed to detect air and missile threats coming from Russia or the Pacific region, to one-quarter power. Movements of missile launchers to North Korea’s east coast have prompted the Air Force to maintain full power for the radar in the event of a launch, underscoring how critical it is to the air and missile defense architecture of the U.S. and its interests in the Pacific.

However, this requirement is waived owing to the operational urgency. Cutting the radar to one-quarter power would have saved $5 million through the end of fiscal 2013, a paltry sum by Space Command standards. And the command is looking for other sources to pay for the additional use of Cobra Dane. But “this is all about putting pennies together to make nickels,” says Gen. William Shelton, Air Force Space Command chief, of many of the small cuts being driven at his command.

By contrast, the service is reducing its Perimeter Acquisition Radar Characterization System (Parcs) radar operations from continuous to 8 hr. a day, Shelton says. Parcs gazes to the northeast from its home at Cavalier Air Force Station, N.D.

This sensor is used primary for surveillance of objects in space. In addition, two of the existing Space Fence receivers are being powered down as a result of the budget cuts. Though Shelton says other sensors are helping to compensate in the space surveillance mission, the Pentagon is taking risk in this area. “I’m very tired of reading that sequestration didn’t have any impact,” he says, noting that the command is also planning for civilian furloughs.

The Air Force also is cutting by 75% the sustainment cost for its legacy wideband satellite communications system, the Defense Satellite Communications System (DSCS). Though DSCS is being replaced by Boeing’s new Wideband Global Satcom (WGS) system — four new satellites are in orbit — DSCS is still being used. With the cuts, the command will reduce engineering support, so anomalies may take longer to address or not be fixed at all, Shelton says. “I’ve always had the mantra that we don’t do euthanasia on satellites,” he says, noting there is no pressure yet to consider premature DSCS retirements. But, he adds, “I may have to adjust my mantra.”

Several industry and government sources have indicated that the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) has been forced to reduce the use of or cease using up to eight of its older spacecraft because of budget cuts. Though the satellites are intact, sources suggested they are merely not being tasked to take pictures or eavesdrop on targets around the globe. An NRO spokeswoman declined to confirm this, citing classification associated with operational security. But this underscores the gravity of cuts being made as a result of sequestration.

Though money is tight now, Shelton says he still is focused on a future beyond the launchers and spacecraft now being produced for the Air Force. These include the Atlas V and Delta IV Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicles (EELVs) as well as the Space-Based Infrared System (Sbirs) High, Advanced Extremely High Frequency (AEHF) satellite system and WGS spacecraft. These satellites are large and costly, designs driven by the need for the government to maximize the use of space atop the EELVs designed in the late 1990s. “EELV has been very successful,” Shelton says. “But it has also been very expensive.”

Though the Air Force is committed to buying more Sbirs, AEHF and WGS satellites, fielding them through the middle of the next decade, the potential introduction of new entrants into the launch market could allow for designers to consider smaller satellite busses in the future. Would-be launch market entrants include Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX), developing the Falcon family, Lockheed Martin with the Athena, Orbital Sciences Corp’s Antares and Alliant Techsystems’ Liberty concept.

“We are where we are through the mid 2020s,” Shelton says. But a successful field of small launchers could allow for the use of smaller, cheaper satellites to either augment missions now handled by large, sometimes $1 billion spacecraft, or, eventually, supplant old architectures.

Shelton says that he thinks there is a nirvana of sorts to be found in balancing requirements of affordability, resilience and capability in the next generation of space systems.

“I think it is achievable. I don’t think it is unobtanium,” he says of a balance among these factors. “There is less complexity. There is certainly survival in numbers. And there are economic advantages to going to less complex and smaller satellites [and] furthering the use of commercial buses instead of tailoring each bus to the design of the payload.”

One candidate program for such a smaller, more disaggregated architecture is the next-generation Air Force weather satellite. “I’m going to be a very demanding task master on the weather satellite,” Shelton says. “It has got to stay small.”