Air Force Targets $1B in Space Acquisition Savings

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WASHINGTON — The U.S. Air Force expects to shave nearly $1 billion from its space acquisition portfolio over the next five years, primarily through efficiencies that include reduced oversight of key programs, a senior service official said.

Lt. Gen. Ellen Pawlikowski, commander of Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center in Los Angeles, the service’s space acquisition shop, attributed more than $600 million of those anticipated savings to the Advanced Extremely High Frequency (AEHF) secure satellite communications program. The Air Force is buying five AEHF satellites from prime contractor Lockheed Martin Space Systems of Sunnyvale, Calif., under a multibillion-dollar contract.

In a teleconference with reporters May 9, Pawlikowski said the Air Force worked with the contractor to streamline production flow and test schedule, while reducing by nearly half the number of reports required from the contractor — from 78 to 42. The Air Force also has reduced the number of meetings on the program as well as the number of people required to attend, she said.

As a result of these and other measures, expected AEHF production times have been reduced from 73 months for the fourth satellite in the series to 63 months for the fifth, Pawlikowski said.

According to documents accompanying the last three years of Air Force budget requests, outyear cost projections on the AEHF program have in fact dropped substantially since 2011. However, it appears that most of those savings have come from deferring previously planned evolutionary upgrades to the system.

The documents accompanying the 2012 and 2013 funding requests show a dramatic drop in projected funding for evolutionary AEHF upgrades — some $686 million — for the four-year period in which the outyear projections in those requests overlap. In the 2014 budget request, unveiled in April, the funding profile for AEHF upgrades tracks closely with the previous year’s projection.

Nonetheless, the outyear funding profile for the full AEHF program is lower in the 2014 request than in the 2013 request, documents show.

Streamlining measures also are being applied to other space programs including the Wideband Global Satcom communications system, which like AEHF has made the transition from development to production, Pawlikowski said. Efficiencies are even being applied, albeit to a lesser extent, to the GPS 3 satellite navigation system, which is still in development, she said.

The Air Force has struggled mightily to control costs on its space development programs — including AEHF, Wideband Global and the Space Based Infrared System (SBIRS) missile warning satellites — during the last decade and a half. But even SBIRS, perhaps the worst offender, has stabilized, Pawlikowski said.

Pawlikowski also mentioned, however, that the first SBIRS satellite has yet to be declared operational two years after being launched. The second was launched earlier this year.

The Air Force’s biggest program in dollar terms is the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle program, which is used to launch virtually all operational U.S. military satellites. United Launch Alliance of Denver, a Boeing-Lockheed Martin joint venture, is prime contractor.

The Air Force is introducing competition as part of its effort to bring down its launch costs, which have soared over the years, and is within days of an agreement with upstart Space Exploration Technologies Corp. (SpaceX) of Hawthorne, Calif., on a plan to certify that company’s Falcon rockets to carry operational U.S. military payloads, Pawlikowski said

SpaceX already is under Air Force contracts to launch a pair of satellites, the civilian Deep Space Climate Observatory and the Space Test Program-2, in missions now scheduled for 2014 and 2015, respectively. SpaceX does not have to undergo the certification process before lanching those satellites because they are experimental, Pawlikowski said.