Shrinking budgets and growing threats have pushed the U.S. Air Force’s Space Command to undertake a series of reviews that could redefine how it fields and operates space capabilities in the future.
In August, for example, Air Force leaders released a white paper making the case for disaggregation, an architectural concept that would disperse capabilities currently concentrated on a few, large platforms to larger numbers of less-complex spacecraft. The idea is to improve constellation resiliency at an affordable cost.
In another report, Air Force officials weighed new ways to use commercial communications satellites for military purposes. The paper recommended changes that would allow the Defense Department to find savings in that arena.
Should the Air Force opt to shake up the space status quo, the new direction will be reflected in the service’s budget request for 2016 and 2017, according to Gen. William Shelton, commander of Air Force Space Command.
Brig. Gen. Roger Teague, one of Shelton’s top deputies, is at the center of the current space architecture debates. He advocates competition and welcomes ideas for doing things differently, but at the same time is vigilant about mission assurance.
Teague, a graduate of the Air Force Academy, previously served as vice commander of the Air Force’s Space and Missile Systems Center in Los Angeles, which is responsible for acquiring military space systems.
In his current position, Teague said he draws from his experience on the Space Based Infrared System (SBIRS) missile warning program, whose troubles drove home the importance for the Air Force of “doing its homework” on new programs.
He spoke recently with SpaceNews staff writer Mike Gruss.
Does industry fully understand what the Air Force means by resiliency?
I think we’ve done a great job of being very transparent with industry and being very open with the fact that we’re looking for more resilient solutions, the ability to withstand whatever threat might be out there and still perform the mission. Our director of requirements, Maj. Gen. Marty Whelan, has held a number of requirements forums specifically addressing resiliency. Gen. Shelton talks about resiliency in a number of sessions and forums. We’ve spoken about it a lot. From an industry perspective, we’re getting a lot of great ideas. Companies are hearing our plea. We’re not seeing specific technical solutions, but we are seeing an eagerness from industry.
Are you hearing from companies besides the usual participants?
In the past, there were certainly some companies that were positioned in the space market that have dominant positions, key suppliers. I think this helps expand the conversation. There are a lot of bright minds out there. I think that’s good for our industrial base. We want to bring our second- and third-level suppliers into the conversation, especially if you’re bringing in smallsat, microsat kinds of solutions — there are a lot of companies out there that can provide those kinds of capabilities and solutions at an affordable price. I don’t have specific examples but we’ve had a good turnout at requirement forums.
How big a role will international partnerships play in any kind of revamped constellation architecture?
I think there are a number of important programs long-term. We certainly have — as an example — a great partnership with a number of nations on the Advanced Extremely High Frequency satellite program. You look at the cooperative programs we have with Australia, for example, on the Wideband Global Satcom program, where Australia purchased a satellite, and also will host a relocated space surveillance telescope. Those are excellent examples of better leveraging of space capabilities with friends and allies for the betterment and improvement of all.
Do those partners bring unique capabilities?
No. I wouldn’t say there are any unique capabilities. I would just say they enhance and augment. They supplement. It’s important that the United States take care of our needs and address our needs.
So those partners are primarily helping out with funding as opposed to contributing their own capabilities?
If there are capabilities our partners have that we can benefit from — in whatever mission area — we welcome that. We’re trying to balance what capabilities we need — affordably but also resiliently.
Where do you see future opportunities?
Satellite communications, but also space situational awareness. Space situational awareness is a big concern for Space Command. It’s high on Gen. Shelton’s list. Any contribution we gain there helps us all.
In planning for future years, are you working on the assumption that launch costs will decline or stay the same?
It’s certainly an objective, but we don’t know. We’ve got to balance the need to make launches more affordable. If we’re able to bring in and certify a few new entrants to be able to perform those launch missions, it’s for the betterment of our nation. But make no mistake about it, mission assurance remains job one. The precious cargo we carry to orbit, some of these satellites are $1 billion-plus.
Are the Defense Department’s acquisition people on the same page as Space Command’s acquisition people when it comes to fielding capabilities beyond the current generation of systems?
I think there’s a strong partnership and a common vision and a real alignment in regard to where we are going across the entire Air Force structure. Certainly there’s room for discussion. You’re going to hear dissenting opinions and I think that’s healthy. It steers the debate, but nonetheless there are a number of players who would echo concepts like competition, different solutions, different ideas.
Will there need to be significant changes in space policy in order to meet the long-term goals as articulated by Space Command leaders?
I think there’s enough in place. Certainly we would like to be able to, from an acquisitions perspective, be able to have as many chains removed as possible and accelerate our acquisition schedule to minimize the time we’re conducting reviews and achieving approvals through the processes that are established. We’ve got the support of Air Force leadership.
The director of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency recently complained about the time it takes for a space system to go from conception to orbit. Does Space Command need to move faster?
We’ve got to be careful. There are certainly ideas out there that allow us to accelerate acquisitions. But it’s important we do the foundational work first. In the acquisition reform era, some of those programs got out ahead of themselves a little bit. Some of those programs got in trouble early. That’s the key lesson we’ve got to learn today. We’ve got to make sure that our technical risks are understood, that the technology’s mature, that the budgets are in place, and that you’ve got a good solid team in place, both on the industry side and the program office side, with a common vision. I think that’s key. Once they start out on a wrong vector, it’s really hard to recover. It’s really important to continue to apply the lessons moving forward whether it be the future of SBIRS, Advanced Extremely High Frequency or GPS.
How does the budget agreement of 2013 shape how you plan for future years?
It relieves some pressure for us in the near years. For the long term, the sequestration levels are still there. It gives us firm targets we’re planning to. It gives us a reduced level. We’re trying to find the sweet spot between resiliency, affordability and capability. But there’s a real need to address readiness. That’s the chief’s No. 1 priority: to assure the staff remains ready through whatever drawdown that might be.
What’s an example of that?
As you look at overhead persistent infrared surveillance or protected communications, and you look at the Space Modernization Initiative funding lines that we’ve established, we’re doing our homework. We’re doing it right and up-front, so we know the situation will be solid in the future.
Follow Mike on Twitter: @Gruss_SN