USAF Examining Alternatives for All of Its Big Satellite Programs

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THULE AIR BASE, Greenland — As early as this summer, the U.S. Air Force expects to complete a series of studies that could help reshape the service’s space portfolio into the 2020s.

In an interview, Gen. William Shelton, commander of Air Force Space Command, said the studies, of which there are at least five, will answer many of the broad strategic questions he has posed throughout his tenure, including what the future military space architecture could look like.

The studies will also provide a possible blueprint for Shelton’s successor at Space Command. Shelton is expected to retire later in the year. 

“All of this activity takes us out to the mid-2020 timeframe,” Shelton said. “This is really long-term stuff but because space systems take so long to acquire, you’ve got to get started now on the study work to procure something for a mid-2020 launch.”

Members of the aerospace industry, including large prime contractors such as Lockheed Martin and Boeing, have been participating in the studies. Specifically, the reviews are examining the future of the Air Force’s satellite programs for missile warning, highly protected communications, and positioning, navigation and timing. Lockheed Martin Space Systems of Denver and Sunnyvale, Calif., is the prime contractor for all three of those programs.  

Another study is looking at the future of wideband communication systems. Boeing Space and Intelligence Systems of El Segundo, Calif., is the prime contractor on the current system, called Wideband Global Satcom (WGS).

As part of the activity, Lockheed Martin has highlighted its broad portfolio and the common components and manufacturing processes that come with it, said Mark Valerio, vice president of the company’s military space business.

“We’re looking at innovative options for hosting payloads, and we are suggesting ways to reduce costs while maintaining our technology edge to address evolving threats,” Valerio said in a Feb. 13 email.

Shelton is keenly interested in disaggregation, a 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. Shelton believes disaggregation would save the Defense Department money in the long run, but to date it is unclear where the money to shift to a disaggregated space portfolio would come from. 

Some industry officials are not convinced disaggregation would lead to savings, in part because dispersing capabilities among smaller satellite platforms could require buying more rockets to launch them, but there is widespread agreement that with shrinking budgets the status quo will have to change.

In one study, the Air Force is examining the future of its Advanced Extremely High Frequency (AEHF) satellite system, which is designed to provide highly secure links to strategic and tactical forces under all conditions, including a nuclear war.

“Do we want to do both tactical and strategic protected communication on the same platform or does it make sense to separate those into different platforms so you’ve got a strategic and a tactical platform?” Shelton said. 

Currently, the strategic and tactical links are handled by different payloads aboard each AEHF satellite, and the Air Force is considering taking those and launching them separately aboard smaller spacecraft. Some industry officials expect this study to be a harbinger of Space Command’s direction.

The Air Force is committed to launching six AEHF satellites at this point. 

The Air Force is also studying several options for a new missile warning sensor that would provide some of the capabilities of the current Space Based Infrared System satellites. Those options would build upon the what the service learned from an experimental missile warning sensor, hosted aboard a commercial satellite, that the Air Force decommissioned in December.

“Is it a wide-field-of-view staring sensor only or is it a continuation of scanning and staring technology,” Shelton said of the missile warning options being considered. “That’s the big debate. And then of course how would you host those sensors?”

Both the missile warning and AEHF studies are expected to wrap up this summer, Shelton said.

For the future of the WGS  X- and Ka-band satellites, the Air Force is focusing on a topic that Shelton has touched on in public speeches for months.

“Do we want to continue with the military dedicated constellation?” Shelton said. “Can we turn either a portion or all of this over to a commercial provider and contract for a service?”

Commercial operators have long said they can offer many of the same technical capabilities as the WGS constellation but at less cost. Shelton has used increasingly stronger language in recent months saying he believes that capability could be handled by commercial satellite providers.

In a Feb. 12 email, Mark Spiwak, Boeing’s military satellite communications program director, said, “Future architectural approaches should consider all options” including “considerations for disaggregated architectures, small free flying satellites, commercial services and hosted payloads in addition to core government satellites.”

To date, six of a planned 10 WGS satellites are in orbit. That study is expected to be finished in late summer or fall.

Meanwhile, on the next-generation position, navigation and timing satellites known as GPS 3, Shelton said he wants to ensure the service is using the right methods to expand the constellation.

“The real question for me is procurement strategy,” he said. “How are we going to go after buying these things in the cheapest way possible? Block buys? Multiyear procurements? Do you look at maybe, right now we have a nuclear detonation [detection] payload on every satellite, could you look at not every satellite having one of those payloads?”

Lockheed Martin is under contract to build the first eight GPS 3 satellites.

 

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