WASHINGTON — The U.S. Air Force’s top uniformed officer for space said Jan. 7 he could envision the Defense Department relying entirely on the private sector for wideband satellite communications services, something commercial satellite operators have long said would lead to substantial cost savings.

In a wide-ranging speech to students at the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University here, Gen. William Shelton, commander of Air Force Space Command, also said the fate of the delayed Space Fence space surveillance system is up to Congress and that the service’s evolving view on disaggregating military space assets could manifest itself in a new weather satellite program.

In response to a question about industry’s role in military space, Shelton said he envisions it becoming routine for commercial business to handle wideband satellite communications.

“My personal opinion is why couldn’t we contract for all standard wideband communication services?” Shelton said. “Why couldn’t that be written by commercial providers instead of us buying our own satellites?”

Any such change likely would be slow in coming, however. The Air Force has invested an estimated $4 billion in its own constellation of Wideband Global Satcom (WGS) X- and Ka-band satellites, which are being built by Boeing Space and Intelligence Systems of El Segundo, Calif. To date, six of a planned 10 WGS satellites are in orbit.

Commercial operators say they can offer many of the same technical capabilities as the WGS constellation but at less cost to the Air Force.

“The [U.S. Defense Department] needs to be thinking seriously about commercial alternatives in order to meet its growth needs over the next decade,” Paul Mattear, director of global network solutions at Intelsat General, wrote in a Nov. 26 post on the company’s blog. “The best application of funds is to take advantage of the commercial satellite provider’s agility and speed to market. Let the commercial side continue to develop high-throughput satellite spacecraft, taking advantage of the latest technological advances (antenna theory, modulation, channelizer-switch, etc.).”

Intelsat General of Bethesda, Md., is the U.S. government services division of Intelsat, the world’s largest commercial satellite operator.

Regarding the delayed next-generation Space Fence, which is expected to dramatically improve the Air Force’s space-object tracking capabilities, Shelton said it is up to lawmakers to appropriate funding for the program, which according to the Air Force is expected to cost at least $1.8 billion during the next decade.

“I’ve practically been on my hands and knees,” Shelton said. “I’m optimistic we’ve made the case and this is something that’s much needed.”

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 under Air Force study contracts. The Air Force, which already has spent more than $1 billion on the effort, was supposed to select a prime contractor this year but delayed the award at least until April.

To account for the delay, the Air Force released a revamped request for proposals for the Space Fence Dec. 12. The solicitation asks Lockheed Martin and Raytheon to include a new funding profile and target date for initial operational capability.

Shelton also said the Air Force continues to study disaggregation, an emerging vision for space that favors smaller, less complex satellites, hosted payloads and other deployment schemes over the large, complex systems that have been the standard for decades. The military weather satellites that replace the current Defense Meteorological Satellite Program (DMSP) spacecraft may be the next showcase of the new philosophy, he said.

“Instead of having a DMSP-sized satellite we can go to a much smaller platform with very specific sensors” Shelton said. “And then there’s enough out there in the civil and commercial realm that we can manage that and still drive the weather models they need to drive.”

The Air Force’s second-to-last DMSP satellite, Flight 19, is scheduled to launch aboard an Atlas 5 rocket supplied by United Launch Alliance of Denver in March. The Air Force has been studying options for a follow-on system ever since the cancellation in 2010 of an over-budget civil-military system, but has yet to decide on an approach.

The first of the smaller weather satellite platforms would be expected to launch around 2020, Shelton 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.