Editor’s note: This was written before Gen. William Shelton ordered the Space Fence to be shut down.
The U.S. Air Force for a while fostered among acquisition professionals “insight, not oversight.” There were many insightful leaders during my 30-year Air Force career. But foresight would have been better than hindsight in critical space capabilities.
The Space Fence is our nation’s only real space surveillance asset in the sense that it perceives a large volume of space and can detect almost all orbital objects that penetrate that volume. More than 80 percent of low Earth orbit objects are perceived every day. No one has to direct the Space Fence to look in any particular place. All other space surveillance sensors have to be told where to look based on extrapolation of orbits developed in advance.
The current Space Fence was developed by the U.S. Navy. More than 20 years ago, it was obvious that the Space Fence was declining. An upgrade program was approved and initiated. There was at least one false start and competition that was canceled. After subsequent requests for proposal were released but before final source selection, the Air Force became the executive agent for space, assuming responsibility for operating and maintaining the Space Fence. Unfortunately, executive agency did not arrive as anticipated with budgets to cover the responsibility. Activity was stretched ostensibly to meet budgetary pressures. Then there was a complete redesign that attempted to emulate the surveillance capability with widely dispersed individual radars rather than an interconnected interferometric array. Time passed with studies, designs and runoffs. The Space Fence did not heal itself or rejuvenate in the interim.
It is now again in jeopardy, perceived by many not to be essential [“Broad Review Casts Doubt on Space Fence Contract Award,” July 22, page 4]. Gen. William Shelton is not among the many. The commander of Air Force Space Command has stated the significance of this capability. Space-based systems cannot replace broad surveillance from the Earth. Terrestrial systems are accessible and maintainable. They do not need to be replaced when even essential elements fail. Their products are more precise. Their data transfer ability is neither environmentally vulnerable nor subject to intentional interference.
The Space Fence should not be on the hit list at all. Neither should it have to compete with less-capable, more-expensive or more-schedule-intolerant space systems.
We have been hurting for more than 20 years. Some time ago my colleagues who were principals in projects that would sustain this important surveillance capability “celebrated” the 15th anniversary of the first request for proposal. During these decades foresight grew dim. Now it seems that even hindsight is cloudy.
Colorado Springs, Colo.