U.S. AIr Force Gen. William Shelton. Credit: U.S. Air Force/Staff Sgt. Christopher Boitz

WASHINGTON — Updating the computing systems and software at the Pentagon’s nerve center for space activity is a top priority in a period of budgetary uncertainty that has greatly complicated planning for that and other efforts, according to a senior U.S. Air Force official.

Gen. William L. Shelton, commander of Air Force Space Command, singled out the upgrade to the Joint Space Operations Center (Jspoc) at Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., for protection in an environment that has made all but the most critical operational capabilities vulnerable. The upgrade, called Jspoc Mission System, is being implemented in phases, with some contracts having been awarded already.

“Everything we do starts with what happens at the Jspoc; [it] is way overdue for modernization — way overdue,” Shelton told reporters at a Defense Writers Group breakfast here. “We’ve got a mainframe computer running our space surveillance business and our space situational awareness business and it hasn’t had a major software upgrade since 1994.”

The Jspoc is responsible for space surveillance, space traffic management and launch support.

In the wide-ranging discussion, Shelton lamented the uncertain U.S. budget situation, which he said makes it extremely difficult to plan for next year and beyond.

The Defense Department, whose budgets are leveling off after a decade of growth, is facing a massive spending cut starting in March unless U.S. President Barack Obama and the Congress can agree on a strategy for reducing the nation’s deficit. On top of that, Shelton and others have noted, the Pentagon, like all other federal agencies, is operating at 2012 funding levels under a six-month continuing resolution set to expire at the end of March.

There appears to be a strong possibility that the continuing resolution will be extended for the remainder of the fiscal year, and the White House has fallen behind schedule in preparing its 2014 budget request. Traditionally, the federal budget request is sent to Congress in February, but that now appears unlikely.

“This is the worst I’ve seen in 36-and-a-half years in the business — this is the worst circumstances I’ve ever seen,” Shelton said. “There are pressures that are on all of us now to try to make decisions without good information — and it is the national security of the nation we’re talking about here.”

Shelton said he and his staff are nonetheless working hard to protect space and cyberspace capabilities, calling them indispensable to U.S. military operations. “In terms of protecting our investment areas, all of our constellations will have to be protected,” he said. “This is foundational capability. It doesn’t matter what size the United States military becomes; we count on space and cyber capabilities to underpin the force.”

In cyberwarfare, which is part of Space Command’s responsibilities, the Air Force plans to add “well over 1,000” jobs in the next two years despite a general hiring freeze affecting the military, Shelton said. The mostly civilian jobs would be at the 24th Air Force, which has operations at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas, and Robins Air Force Base, Ga., he said.

Currently there are about 5,400 people involved in cyber operations at the 24th Air Force, including 3,500 military personnel, according to an Air Force fact sheet.

Shelton said his current space programs are performing well, but acknowledged some recent cost growth on the GPS 3 satellite navigation and Space Based Infrared System (SBIRS) missile warning programs. Lockheed Martin Space Systems of Sunnyvale, Calif., is prime contractor on both programs.

The issue with SBIRS was a production break between the third and fourth satellites in the series and some component quality issues that required substantial rework on the hardware. He said this has caused cost growth on those two satellites, but not as high as the $438 million previously estimated by the Air Force.

Costs have risen by an additional 7 percent — the Air Force acknowledged 15 percent cost growth last year — on the GPS 3 program, Shelton said. He cited a combination of factors including problems with the spacecraft platform and communications system, but said the main culprit is delays with the navigation payload, which is being supplied by ITT Exelis Geospatial Systems of Rochester, N.Y.

Shelton believes the contractor has the issues with both SBIRS and GPS 3 under control.

Shelton also said the Air Force might never get to the bottom of a Delta 4 rocket-engine anomaly that occurred during an otherwise successful GPS navigation satellite launch in October. For reasons that remain unknown, the rocket’s RL-10 upper-stage engine developed a fuel leak in its thrust chamber and underperformed, even though the satellite ultimately was able to reach its proper orbit.

The anomaly has delayed several upcoming launches, including that of an Air Force Wideband Global Satcom communications satellite, which is now scheduled for March 28.

Shelton also said the Air Force is preparing a contracting vehicle for so-called hosted payloads that should be ready by the end of the year and also continues to study options for a next-generation space surveillance satellite. “We firmly believe that space-based space surveillance is something we need to continue; the question is exactly what that satellite would look like,” Shelton said.



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Warren Ferster is the Editor-in-Chief of SpaceNews and is responsible for all the news and editorial coverage in the weekly newspaper, the spacenews.com Web site and variety of specialty publications such as show dailies. He manages a staff of seven reporters...