Op-ed | With Stability Achieved, the Future of Space is Now

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When Sputnik was launched in 1957, the Space Age arrived very abruptly on America’s doorstep, and the space race began with a space chase in which the United States successfully pursued and eventually surpassed our Soviet rival. In the six decades since that grim October day, the United States has had to meet and overcome problems both technical and logistical, heartbreaking failures, countless crises and gut-wrenching tragedies, but our responses to these challenges have led us to becoming the world leader in space systems.

Designing, building, deploying and operating systems in space is a hard business, not for the faint of heart. The record of our history in the space business demonstrates that when we have run into problems, we have developed the appropriate policies and procedures to solve and avoid them in the future. Although most of these policies/procedures may have been a perfect fit in their time, many have outlived their effectiveness. Times and circumstances frequently change. At one time football coaches considered the T-formation on the cutting edge of offensive strategy. Now it is thought of as a curiosity on the rubbish heap of gridiron history. Organizations and systems continue to evolve and change as time moves on.

A decade or so ago, many of our space acquisition programs were in trouble — very big trouble. Both civil and national security space programs were dramatically exceeding budget and could only be fielded considerably later than their planned schedules, and at a far greater cost than planned. From the military’s point of view, this was a catastrophe. The eye-popping overruns were occurring at a time when capabilities provided from space had become absolutely essential to our warfighters with spacecraft providing the essential data and information that reduced U.S. and allied casualties, limited collateral property damage and, most importantly, helped protect innocent noncombatants.

In a resource-constrained environment, these unplanned costs ate away at the acquisition of other vital military and national security capabilities. Thus, executing space systems development and deployment in a cost-effective and time-efficient manner was absolutely essential to continue to provide these critical capabilities to our warfighters and operational users.

Historically, system program offices (SPOs) not only focused on delivering the current generation of new satellites and ground segments, but also started the necessary work on the next-generation system while the current generation was still under development. While we were launching Titans, we were developing Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicles. While we were launching and operating GPS 2R, 2R-M and 2F, we were beginning development on GPS 3. While we were building and fielding the Defense Support Program, we were developing the Space Based Infrared System.

These overlapping programs have been the standard method of operating because of the long-system development lead time and rapid technology obsolescence. However, because of the significant problems with the last generation of systems (e.g., delayed schedules and cost overruns, driven by the multiple simultaneous technology advances that were necessary) and the pressure to get this critical generation through development, it was decided that focusing on execution, to the exclusion of everything and anything else, was the essential component to success.

The resulting policy implemented was that of laser focus on executing so-called programs of record as a strategy to focus on completing the development. The Defense Acquisition University tells us that there is no approved process or definition of “program of record” consistent across the Department of Defense. However, in general it is an acquisition program that has: 1) survived the program objective memorandum/budget process; 2) is recognized in a service’s documentation; 3) has successfully achieved program initiation recognized by a Milestone Decision Authority, normally at Milestone B; and 4) is funded and documented across the Future Years Defense Program.

To prepare for tomorrow amid the challenges we face will require a change in both what we are buying and how we are buying it.

The laser focus idea was absolutely necessary to successfully deliver the cutting-edge technology essential to that struggling generation of systems. We even went as far as to remove funding from the program offices to work issues not directly in support of the program of record’s execution, including investigating and starting development of next-generation systems. This resource prioritization was critical to maintenance of a laser focus. The laser focus policy helped us stave off the bleeding in our space acquisition programs and finally field the planned 1990s and 2000s spacecraft for our warfighters. Though some of these are using 1980s technologies, they are still incredibly terrific, efficient and effective systems.

This approach, while it was essential to the turnaround in the development of this generation of space programs, should have had an expiration date. Its continued use presents a growing risk to the future of these critical space missions. It is time to rethink the strategy. As U.S. Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-Okla.), a former Navy pilot, recently said, “Replacing those systems through the normal acquisition process will give us satellites that are obsolete by the time we launch them. That’s more than inefficient: It’s a potential battle-loser.”

The development cycles for this generation of programs are a thing of the past. Nearly all of the technology risks associated with them have been retired. These spacecraft and their ground segments are now in production. Of course, we still need to maintain a strong attention to this phase, as we are not building household appliances. We are producing unique and complex space systems, in very low volume, and even Maytag needs to pay strict attention to quality control as it manufactures washing machines. But if we fail to prepare for the future intelligently, we do so at great risk to our position in the world.

Preparing to fight tomorrow’s battles has been and still remains one of the critical priorities of Gen. John Hyten, commander of U.S. Air Force Space Command (AFSPC). However, due to schedule delays, this generation of programs could be flying 1980s technology well past 2025. Is it a smart strategy to be flying 45-year-old technology when the rest of the world, including America’s adversaries, is rapidly exploring and exploiting new technologies?

Gen. Hyten clearly set the new direction for space systems acquisition by stating we must “Win Today’s Fight [and] Prepare for Tomorrow’s Fight,” putting equal weight on preparing for the systems of the future as we have on executing current programs. Additionally, he has stated, “We also have a sacred responsibility to deliver space effects to Soldiers, Sailors, Marines, and Airmen wherever they are, all the time,” emphasizing that these new systems must be resilient to be available all of the time. Finally, he said, “Over the past several years what has changed is the fiscal environment; budgets are tighter and we have had to learn to work within that constraint,” putting emphasis on the affordability of future systems. For this future we need to have newer technology to continue to dominate the space regime, and we have to do this more rapidly, and at lower cost, than we have done in the past. To do this, we have to be smart and adjust the policies that prepared us to field our recent generation of space systems.

We now live in a world of accelerated technology advancement. Moore’s Law has come home to roost in the space business. Taking seven to 10 years to develop and deploy operational space systems is no longer efficient or acceptable. To retain system agility and resilience we simply cannot afford buying and fielding technologically “old” systems up to a decade after program initiation.

U.S. Deputy Defense Secretary Bob Work has said, “We know that our nation’s space architecture faces increasing threats. The United States will maintain enormous absolute power as far into the future as anyone can see, but its relative power will decline in an increasingly technological world and one in which U.S. leadership will be increasingly challenged. Today the U.S. margin of technological military superiority is steadily eroding and China and Russia are pursuing levels of advanced weapons development that haven’t been seen since the mid-1980s.”

So once we begin the essential focus on our next generation of space capabilities, we need to decide whether we should “evolve” the older technologies from the previous lengthy development effort or embark on new advancements. After the pain of this last generation of development, many believe we can avoid those birth pangs by evolving that generation of system.

However, the assumption that simply evolving established programs means low cost and minimal risk is a fallacy. Although some special situations may benefit from evolving current systems, in many cases a new direction may offer the lowest-cost and lowest-risk approach, or more importantly provide the only way to handle an evolving threat. Technology advances in leaps or quantum jumps — and these advances can become high-leverage enablers of new systems.

We need to make a determination for each program on an individual basis; should we continue to fine-tune and tweak the systems we currently utilizing, or should we leap to the next generation of technology? Even if evolution was lower cost and/or risk, we also have to ask: Will an evolved system with incremental improvements be able to handle the next generation of threats? The correct answer is contingent on the nature of the threat and the costs and risks of each option.

It may be far more difficult and costly to solve technology obsolescence than to fly new technology, especially if the new technology is mature technology developed and utilized for commercial or civil applications. As we learned with the National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System’s Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite (VIIRS) sensor, evolving technology is not always the best technical answer. While VIIRS was supposed to be an evolution of an existing sensor, and low risk, it was the main anchor that sunk NPOESS.

On the other hand, if we embark on new development, history has also taught us that we need to drive down the technical and sometimes operational risks before making this our singular path. However, with no money in the SPO’s program of record to accomplish this risk reduction, we are faced with a serious challenge.

Gen. Ellen Pawlikowski, then the commander of the Space and Missiles Systems Center, realized this challenge needed to be addressed a few short years ago. She secured a funding line called the Strategic Modernization Initiative (SMI), which was supported by senior DoD and Air Force acquisition leadership at the time. Unfortunately, fully half of this scarce resource has since been siphoned back into programs of record and diverted to a variety of issues rather than being earmarked exclusively for that all-important next generation of programs. This counterintuitive resourcing and decision-making will dramatically hamstring our ability to meet future challenges and mitigate threats to our space systems. As such, the policy and resource prioritization should be revisited to reflect our long-term security realities.

Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.) said in a statement: “The U.S. is in danger of losing our technological edge due to our current overreliance on a big-government acquisition model.” He went on to call that model “increasingly unsustainable,” blaming rising costs, long development times, a lack of competition and the government’s failure to adopt private-sector innovations.

Merely evolving old systems will not allow us to keep up with the rapid pace of technological development. We must find affordable ways to insert new technologies within a shorter time span. One possible means to do this is to build shorter-life, single-purpose spacecraft systems, which cost less and can be built and tested in a timely fashion. We need to leverage commercial space industry systems and approaches and look very hard at buying commercial buses when it makes sense.

Additionally, we should use commercial buses and rideshares when we can, and also emphasize acquisition of technically ready payloads and payload capabilities. Lower-cost systems with shorter lives and spares allow us to use less-reliable and lower-throw-weight launch systems, which also dramatically reduce launch cost. Low-cost light lift is now being considered again with Italy’s Vega rocket already having been booked for 10 launches.

As we move to the next generation of space systems, we need to assess mission by mission whether we should continue to invest in the evolution of the current system or develop a new one based on different technology —sometimes new, sometimes not new. The drivers of this decision are capability, cost and risk.

  • Capability: What capability is needed by the users? The biggest driver will always be capability. This is true especially in light of consideration of both the threats and adversary capabilities in a rapidly advancing technology world.
  • Cost: What is the cost differential to maintain the potentially obsolete technologies and replace them vs. the cost of developing a different technical solution? The different solution may require new technology risk reduction in order to engender the confidence necessary to proceed with the development.
  • Risk: What is the risk the system can perform against newer technology systems and advancing more sophisticated threats? We also need to consider program risk, and realize it is not necessarily true that evolution is lower risk or cost than development.

There is no one right answer. Every mission must be considered uniquely to arrive at the correct decision for that mission. However, rapidly advancing technology and the will of our adversaries to use this new technology needs to be an important component of the decision-making process.

While no one wants a weaponized space, it is the job of the military to be prepared for every eventuality, and with the number of nations in space and ever-advancing technology readily available, we must assure that our future architectures are resilient enough to guarantee the availability of critical capabilities from space to our warfighters and operational users. We should avoid having known technology architecture for long time periods without the ability to insert new technology. This allows adversaries unnecessarily long time periods to develop specific technologies to counter our perceived advantages.

On the other hand, many new developments have been inexpensive and fast; for instance, the first Defense Meteorological Satellite Program satellite was completed in a mere 10 months. In the past, a lot of the big steps were enabled by DoD, NASA or European Space Agency investments — for example, the channelizers that enable high-throughput satellites are thanks to Wideband Global Satcom and ESA investments.

In the world of commercial space communications, the hypercompetitive nature of the business is driving companies to be on the leading edge, and yet they do it without significant risks. Two such examples are the laser communications from low Earth orbit to geostationary orbit, and O3b Networks.

Both NASA with its Laser Communications Relay Demonstration and ESA with its public-private partnership for the European Data Relay System, or Space Data Highway program, are potential revolutionary changes but are being done in a low-risk fashion: test, demonstrate and then operationalize.

Another example of low-risk developmental capabilities is O3b’s constellation of Ka-band broadband satellites that will provide high-speed communications from low or medium Earth orbit. Before O3b, low data rate communications from LEO or MEO were the rule, and only geostationary orbit provided high speed. Not anymore. The satellite design is extremely complex, with 10 user beams and two gateway beams that are always moving. The handoff from one beam to the next isn’t so easy either, but the next generation is likely to have 100 user beams and serve LEO spacecraft.

To prepare for tomorrow amid the challenges we face will require a change in both what we are buying and how we are buying it. It has been widely recognized and recommended that before we start a new program of record for the next generation of space systems, we drive down the technical risks with flight demonstrations. The Air Force (AFSPC/SMC) has embraced this concept and has proposed various flight demonstration programs. SMC has been reorganized to have an organization to focus on this.

To effectively maintain the U.S. position as the global leader in space, we must devote some significant portion of SMI funds to accelerating development of a next generation of systems. However, it has been next to impossible to win stable funding for demonstration programs. We should also add to the SMI funding line and ensure that it focuses on those systems. We need to fly more demonstrations like the recent successful Commercially Hosted Infrared Payload. With such demonstrations, we can buy down technology risks in an affordable fashion and be ready to institute low-risk next-generation programs.

We now live in a world of accelerated technology advancement. Moore’s Law has come home to roost in the space business.

Our adversaries’ willingness and motivation to rapidly innovate could well put our warfighters at a great disadvantage in the future if we do not start finding a way to get the latest and most appropriate technology into our systems. We need to do this in a low-risk fashion (driven by on-orbit demonstrations) and in a way that ensures the architecture has assured availability/resilience. We need to end the “Tyranny of the Program of Record” and be innovative. We then need to have specific milestones and goals on the path to get there. This also needs to be a cohesive story in order to get congressional support, with strong support from space leadership.

With many of our recent problems behind us, now is the time to move forward or risk being swept behind by the vacuum created by our own inertia. Our adversaries’ willingness and motivation to rapidly innovate could well put our warfighters at a great disadvantage if we do not incorporate the latest relevant technologies into our systems. We can do this in a low-risk fashion, and on-orbit demonstrations can help get us there in a manner in which the architecture has assured availability/resilience.

In summary, to prepare for tomorrow amid the challenges we face, we need a policy that provides some significant priority to future space systems architectures as we move forward. We certainly have to be very focused on changes to what and how we are buying.

While we still need to pay attention to fielding this generation of space systems, we need to move past the exclusive view of singular laser focus on this generation and pay close to equal attention on the future systems and the innovations necessary to face a future with technically sophisticated threats while still maintaining our asymmetric advantage. To anticipate and adequately prepare for this challenging future, we must ensure an emphasis on the next block of a space system before the current block has been deployed.

We need to make intelligent decisions on whether we evolve or develop. We should not assume that evolutionary implies lower risk or lower cost. If we develop, we need to fly more demonstrations where we can buy down technology risk in an affordable fashion, and be ready to institute low-risk next-generation programs. We also should strongly consider accelerating development of those systems by providing a plus up to SMI and focus it on the next generation, so we can field systems that can adequately meet the coming generation of threats in an innovative and cost-effective manner.

Thomas D. Taverney has 45 years of experience in the missions of space, as an operator and developer, and for the military and the aerospace industry. He is a retired U.S. Air Force major general and former vice commander of Air Force Space Command. He also has been a senior industry executive and the line manager in development of various space payloads. The opinions expressed are his own.