Military Space Quarterly | Long-lasting Milsats Give U.S. Time to Consider Next Steps

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WASHINGTON — As legacy U.S. military satellites celebrate and even surpass their teenage years on orbit, a Lockheed Martin executive said the extra service time is allowing for a strategic pause, helping the Air Force to plan its future portfolio.

Early in February, Lockheed Martin Space Systems executives in Denver drove to U.S. Air Force Space Command in Colorado Springs, Colo., to join in celebrating the 20th anniversary of the launch of the first Milstar satellite, part of a constellation of satellites in geosynchronous orbit that provide highly secure strategic communications. The satellite was launched in February 1994 with a life expectancy of 10 years.

Similar anniversaries are approaching in the coming years.

Mark Valerio, Lockheed Martin vice president of military space business, points to several constellations launched in the 1990s that have lasted longer than expected. They include: Defense Meteorological Satellite Program weather satellites, the Defense Satellite Communication System, GPS and Milstar. Between them, the Air Force has squeezed out more than 654 years of service, an average per-satellite life of more than 17.7 years, which is nearly 10 years longer than originally anticipated, he said.

Those added years of capability, Valerio said, are “really what will give the Air Force time to think about what happens next.”

The Air Force is in the midst of multiple studies to determine what its future military space architecture might look like. The studies are examining concepts including disaggregation, a vision for space that favors smaller, less-complex satellites, hosted payloads and other deployment schemes over the large, multimission platforms that have been the standard for decades.

Recently, several Air Force leaders joked that the legacy satellites are old enough to drink or to vote.

Valerio, whose company built many if not most of these satellites, said that the next generation of satellites should match or exceed those life expectancy numbers.

“They will last even longer yet,” he said.

In an interview, Valerio said one of the keys to longevity is steady production lines that have allowed Lockheed to keep costs down, workers’ skills sharp, and reduce risk.

In addition to having built many of the legacy systems, Lockheed Martin is prime contractor on most of the major unclassified Air Force satellite programs now in production including the Space Based Infrared System missile warning satellites, the Advanced Extremely High Frequency secure communications satellites designed to replace Milstar, and the next-generation GPS 3 navigation satellites. 

The company is hoping to keep the production lines open for these programs as well as for the U.S. Navy’s Mobile User Objective System communications satellites. This would appear to put Lockheed Martin at odds with the disaggregation push, although company officials insist they are open to the concept. 

Regardless, the longevity of current and legacy systems has a tendency to push major constellation architecture changes further out into the future.

“The great news is our industry produces satellites that last longer than we think they will,” Gen. William Shelton, commander of Air Force Space Command, said in a Feb. 7 speech. In interviews and speeches, Shelton has given every indication that he supports a move toward disaggregation, which proponents believe could make U.S. space capabilities less vulnerable to attack. 

Eric Webster, vice president and director of weather systems at satellite instrument maker Exelis Geospatial Systems of Rochester, N.Y., said longevity is not in and of itself a strategy and must be coupled with other planning.

The U.S. government “is in a precarious situation with relying on satellites to live longer, but longer term it is trying to better plan to ensure overlap,” he said.

Webster has been vocal about the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration depending on some of its weather satellites to operate beyond their design lives. That dependency leaves the agency open to potential gaps if a satellite were to fail suddenly or be lost in a launch failure.

Exelis builds the primary instruments on NOAA’s geostationary weather satellites.

 

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