Why Space Force Wants Out Of GEO, Long Development Cycles

Next-Generation  Overhead Persistent Infrared satellite
Credit: Raytheon

The U.S. Space Force will get out of putting large satellites in geosynchronous orbit (GEO) following the launch of the Next Generation Overhead Persistent Infrared (OPIR) program, as service leaders are pressing industry to develop satellites for lower orbits faster and be more realistic about their cost and schedule.

Moving away from these satellites to a broader, resilient architecture for missile warning is needed to face a growing threat from China and Russia, and also to be able to move faster in acquisition, says Frank Calvelli, assistant Air Force secretary for Space Force acquisition and integration.

“The old approach of the sort of 7-year development contracts that we’re doing, I mean look at next-gen GEO. That should not be that hard ... It’s a 7-year development for a class of spacecraft that we’ve been building as a nation for 30, 40 years,” Calvelli says.

The physics of building these new spacecraft—with new optics, focal planes and the physics of the overall large size—takes too long, in addition to the contractual logistics, he argues.

“We have got to stop the traditional way of doing satellites, and these sort of large, seven-year cost-plus contracts, and go to more systems, more proliferated ... and stop redesigning everything. And when we do that, we’re going to add a significant amount of speed.”

For the Space Force, the model will be the Space Development Agency (SDA), which will become part of the new service on Oct. 1. The SDA’s model of proliferated, small satellites in its Tranche 0 and Tranche 1 architectures provides needed resilience, and “I’m generally excited about their approach to do business,” Calvelli says.

“They are building small, and they are doing these on two-year cycles, and they are delivering capabilities faster,” he says. “And I actually think that’s a model that we can take advantage of and actually push up across the organization, across other [programs].”

SDA Director Derek Tournear says the upcoming launch of the large Next Gen OPIR satellites will be the last in GEO for the Space Force. These satellites, the last of which is expected to launch in 2028, will have a lifespan into 2040 and that will be it for GEO as the Space Force looks to a future of resilient architecture in lower orbits.

“The reason that there’s that period of a shift is because this is a no-fail mission that the U.S. is relying on the Space Force to provide, so we want to have that overlap,” Tournear told reporters Sept. 21 at the Air Force Association’s Air, Space and Cyber Conference outside Washington. “I always relate it to: ‘we want to be on monkey bars, not the trapeze, and we want to make sure we have a firm handle and make sure the LEO [low-Earth orbit], MEO [medium-Earth-orbit] layers are working before we let go and go to the next one, rather than jump and try to grab.’”

Once the GEO satellites are launched, the future is proliferated LEO and proliferated MEO for missile-warning and missile-tracking, he says.

The chief of space operations, Gen. Jay Raymond, says his service’s force design is pressing for that shift because the large GEO capabilities, while exquisite, were built for a different era.

“And so what we’re going to do to better posture our capabilities to operate in this contested domain is to redesign them to again be more resilient by design,” Raymond says.

To get there, Calvelli calls on industry to be more forthcoming and realistic in its bids.

“My message to industry, I will say, is please bid on programs with realistic cost, realistic schedules and please bid on programs that you can be successful,” he says. “And when you win that contract and execute, deliver those programs on cost, deliver those programs on schedule. I think that’s going to be key to all of our success as a nation and to counter the threat against China.”

Brian Everstine

Brian Everstine is the Pentagon Editor for Aviation Week, based in Washington, D.C. Before joining Aviation Week in August 2021, he covered the Pentagon for Air Force Magazine. Brian began covering defense aviation in 2011 as a reporter for Military Times.