COLORADO Springs, Colo. — The U.S. military space program is facing a perfect storm of emerging threats and declining budgets that will necessitate wholesale changes or result in an unaffordable and potentially untenable future, the U.S. Air Force’s top uniformed space official said April 9.

“We’ve got a tremendous amount of work to do, but we’ve got to start now,” said Gen. William Shelton, commander of Air Force Space Command. “The status quo just can’t drive us.”

During a keynote address here at the 29th National Space Symposium and in a briefing with reporters immediately afterward, Shelton said the Defense Department must consider a series of reforms, such as smaller satellites and hosted payloads, to help keep costs down. His views on such a philosophy, often referred to as disaggregation, have only strengthened over the past two years, he said.

Shelton said military space programs must find the sweet spot between capability, affordability and resilience. Unless work begins now on future architectures for space programs, the current constellations could remain in place well into the 2030s given how long it takes to develop new space systems.

Shelton said these existing constellations for critical applications such as missile warning and protected communications are highly capable but are tremendously expensive and lack resiliency because they aggregate so much of that capability aboard large, potentially vulnerable platforms.

“We’ve got to find a way ahead that gives us the capabilities that we need which will be affordable and much more resilient,” he said.

Fiscal austerity, or at least a version of it, is part of a new reality, Shelton said. “Trust me — we’re looking at declining budgets for as far as we can see,” he said. Already, Space Command has seen its $3.2 billion operations and maintenance budget reduced by $508 million this year due to the automatic budget cuts known as sequestration. Shelton described in detail some of sequestration’s immediate impacts.

For example, he said, the Air Force is scaling back operations of its space surveillance network, which today is used to track some 20,000 man-made objects in Earth orbit ranging from operational satellites to shards of debris.

Among the Air Force’s space surveillance assets is the Space Fence, a line of radars extending across the southern United States. Shelton said one-third of the Space Fence’s receive sites have been placed into cold storage, reducing the overall accuracy and effectiveness of the system.

Moreover, Shelton raised the possibility that the delayed contract award for a next-generation version of the Space Fence, a far more capable system expected to cost some $3.5 billion, might be deferred indefinitely.

Lockheed Martin Mission Systems and Sensors of Moorestown, N.J., and Raytheon Integrated Defense Systems of Tewksbury, Mass., have developed competing designs for the next-generation Space Fence, which would be capable of tracking greater numbers of smaller objects than the current system. Award of a full-scale development contract had been expected in 2012 or early 2013.

“We are very close to being in a position to award that contract,” Shelton said. “The question on the Space Fence follow on is … whether this is a priority investment for the future.”

Shelton noted that the Space Fence follow-on is not under contract at a time when serious budget reductions are in the offing. “Some serious decisions need to be made as to whether that’s a capability we want to invest in in the future,” he said. “I’m all for it, personally,” Shelton said, but he added that just as he advocates for space capabilities, others in the military advocate for other capabilities.

Shelton said the Air Force also has cut the operating hours for a space surveillance radar at Cavalier Air Force Station in North Dakota from 24 hours a day to eight hours a day.

The service also had planned to reduce the operating power of a radar in Alaska, a move that would have saved about $5 million this year, but reversed course in light of the North Korean threat, Shelton said. He said that is $5 million worth of reductions that he must find elsewhere within its budget.

Shelton said the Air Force is initiating a program called the Combined Space Operations to facilitate space situational awareness data sharing with close allies. Canada, Great Britain and Australia are participating, and New Zealand is a prospective partner, Shelton said.

Another program affected by sequestration is the aging Defense Satellite Communications System, on which the Air Force has reduced expenditures by 75 percent, Shelton said. This system is being replaced by the far more capable Wideband Global Satcom system but still has a number of satellites in operation. Shelton said the cost-cutting move means the Air Force is focused on fixing immediate problems with the legacy system rather than long-term sustainment.

Shelton said the service faces many similar dilemmas that pit modernization versus readiness. “It’s literally choosing between your children,” he said.

Mike Gruss covers military space issues, including the U.S. Air Force and Missile Defense Agency, for SpaceNews. He is a graduate of Miami University in Oxford, Ohio.