Hyten: To keep edge in space, military needs cheaper launch costs, faster satellite development

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The Pentagon's current leadership is motivated to change the procurement culture, Hyten said. They "understand the need" to speed up the modernization of space systems.

WASHINGTON — Air Force Gen. John Hyten has been insistent that U.S. military space programs need to “go faster” as adversaries continue to close in on the United States.

Hyten, the commander of U.S. Strategic Command based in Omaha, Nebraska, oversees the nation’s nuclear and space missions and has been outspoken in his criticism of the Pentagon’s procurement methods and technology choices.

The military space budget is getting a big boost in fiscal year 2019. But moving faster in space is about more than just bigger budgets. It also will require changing the culture of buying “exquisite” launch vehicles and satellites, Hyten said during a wide-ranging interview with SpaceNews reporters.

“I know it’s doable,” Hyten said.

“First, we need to get launch costs under $100 million,” he said. That goal has become a lot more realistic since commercial firms like SpaceX entered the national security launch market. “If you watch the recent contract awards, the costs are coming down,” he said. “But we are not there all the way.”

“Secondly, we have to get to three to five-year development timelines for satellites,” Hyten said. “We’re not there yet on the military side. But we are there on the commercial side. We have to translate those practices into the government side.”

Today’s military satellites — many with billion-dollar prices tags — were designed for a different time, when spacecraft in orbit were not seen as potential enemy targets. Hyten and others have argued that the next batch of satellites should be smaller and cheaper so they could be quickly replaced during a conflict if they came under attack.

“We have to get to modular spacecraft where we can take existing government or commercial buses and integrate new payloads,” said Hyten. “We’re not there on the government side but the commercial side does it.”

The procurement of computers and terminals that control satellites and data from the ground also needs a complete overhaul. “The biggest piece is an integrated ground architecture,” Hyten said. “Defining that future architecture is critical. If we have to spend a billion dollars for a new ground system for every satellite we build, then it all falls apart. The practices are there in industry. But we have to translate that into the military culture.”

This type of change “will be a challenge,” he said. “There are lots of historical examples of how this country moves fast when the need demands it. It’s usually in response to a tragic event or an urgent threat. This is an urgent threat.”

Hyten said he has confidence in the current DoD leadership. The new undersecretary of defense for research and engineering Michael Griffin is “someone who understands space pretty darn well,” Hyten said. “That’s an awesome thing.” Deputy Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan is also committed to going fast. “As a combatant commander, I will be cheering them on.”

One obstacle that Hyten and other officials worry about is a Pentagon bureaucracy that spends years analyzing and defining “requirements,” which can slow down a program considerably even before development begins.

“I have this conversation frequently with General Paul Selva,” Hyten said. Selva is vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and leads the Joint Requirements Oversight Council, a panel of four-star vice chiefs of the military services.

Selva assured Hyten that the cycle will be shortened dramatically. “He is now putting mandates on the bureaucracy to go fast,” Hyten said. “The key is to focus on capabilities. We should not define the systems in the JROC. We should define the capabilities we need. And then leverage the innovation in industry to deliver those capabilities. The reason JROC has taken so long is that we define the system through the requirements process. That will change.”

A future space force?

Congress expects to receive from Hyten in June a “warfighting concept of operations” for space. He said the document is nearing completion. One of the topics will be how to prepare the military for space operations. “One area where we have not trained the joint warfighters across the force is how to integrate space into operations,” he said. “There’s a small group of space people who understand it. Air minded people, ground minded people, maritime operators, they all need to know what space does for them and how to integrate space into a terrestrial operation. That will require more work, to identify what training is needed.”

President Trump shook up the military space world last week when he endorsed the creation of a “space force” as a separate branch of the service. His comments energized congressional proponents of an independent space corps, an idea strongly opposed by the Pentagon and the Air Force.

Hyten did not say whose side he’s on. But seemed encouraged by the tenor of the conversation. “I like the law Congress passed last year about what we have to do to deal with space as a warfighting domain,” he said. “I like the study they commissioned to look at what the future of space wars will be. I like the way the president talked about space as a warfighting domain. We’re going to work all those issues.”

Both the president and Congress started with the premise that space is a domain of war and a space force is part of that discussion, Hyten said. “I love that the debate is the right debate. I love the fact that the administration is embracing it. I love the fact that Congress is embracing it. I like that we have to do an independent assessment of a space force. I like the fact that the president is involved. This is important to our future security.”

Jokes about space trooper helmets and uniforms aside, this is a critical national security issue, Hyten said. “I’m very happy with the discussions right now. But I don’t like it when I get questions on helmets.”

Editor’s note: To read more of the interview with Gen. Hyten, check out the March 26 issue of SpaceNews magazine