The U.S. Air Force crafted its 2015 space budget request with two main goals in mind: saving money and moving toward a new, more-dispersed satellite constellation architecture.
As the point man for space acquisition at Air Force headquarters in Washington, Maj. Gen. Robert McMurry is trying to balance these goals, which may or may not be compatible given that architectural changes tend to require some upfront investment. It’s also part of his job to sell new ideas such as disaggregation to skeptics within the Department of Defense and elsewhere.
One of the challenges, he says, is that some of the arguments in favor of disaggregation rest on unproven assumptions. Another obstacle is institutional resistance to change.
McMurry’s approach is guided in part by what he characterizes as “scar tissue”: His career includes multiple assignments on the Space Based Infrared System for missile warning, whose legion problems were attributed in part to insufficient systems engineering work during the program’s early phases.
Other matters commanding McMurry’s attention these days include questions surrounding the Air Force’s reliance on a rocket with a Russian-built main engine and congressional calls for greater competition in the Pentagon launch market.
McMurry spoke recently with SpaceNews staff writer Mike Gruss.
What are some of the DoD-wide sticking points on disaggregation?
Disaggregation is just a potential way to provide the kind of system architecture resilience that we’d really like to see. The department is committed to adding resilience to our architectures. What the department is in the middle of now is how to do that. We have invested a lot of money in the systems we are fielding today and we’ve gone through a lot of very challenging years of development. Disaggregation has become a catchphrase. It may end up being the solution, but it is one of a potential set of solutions that would come forward.
Would disaggregation save money in the long run?
Resilience is a mission imperative. There are those who argue, with some evidence, that if you can get industry production rates up and do appropriate interleaving of DoD and commercial activities, you can achieve significant cost savings. That would be terrific. But that’s to be determined; you have to prove it.
How do you prove it without doing it?
I don’t know that we will assume those kinds of efficiencies in the analyses that we have going forward. You’ll prove it in a higher rate of production. In terms of the analyses, we wouldn’t assume those radical efficiencies that are argued by the true zealots.
Where do you fall on that spectrum?
Having a fair bit of scar tissue from the hard development days, I’m very much an advocate to being smart and well-informed, with good research before we enter heavy development. If we do that, we can probably accomplish the development on schedule and on cost. If we don’t do that, I think our chances are very low. We have to be smart about the upfront investigation and research we’re doing and that’s part of the Space Modernization Initiatives that are part of the programs of interest.
Do you view whatever follows the fifth and sixth Advanced Extremely High Frequency communications satellites as clones of the previous models or a different animal all together?
We’re looking at all [possibilities] — continuing what we have, or close to what we have, to a radical change. There are opportunities with AEHF. There’s a fairly clear demarcation where disaggregation may make a great deal of sense, because you have strategic nuclear command and then you have other protected communication. If you put them all on one satellite system, then you protect it to a much higher level. So it seems to hold great promise for some kind of change in architecture that would allow us more resilience at potentially a better cost. If you talk to the various vendors involved, I think they would agree. They would not all agree how to go about that, though.
When might the Air Force decide which course to take on protected communications?
The analysis of alternatives is underway now. Sometime in the next year we’ll be closing on that. It will be before we submit the budget.
What kind of solution do you envision for the Air Force’s recently announced Weather Satellite Follow-on program?
The Weather Satellite Follow-on is an interesting example in that we looked at that very closely in terms of what does a true military solution have to provide. We did fairly in-depth analyses with warfighting scenarios and found it doesn’t have to provide that much because of the availability of weather data from other government civil capabilities and international partner data sources that we use all the time. It allowed us to really narrow down the solution set to a much more affordable solution compared to previous, less-desirable solutions like NPOESS [National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System] or DWSS [Defense Weather Satellite System], that were going to be very expensive. Still, there are those who are concerned because it’s not the way we always did it. But it’s the way we have to think about the problem.
Is the Weather Satellite Follow-on a model for future acquisition programs?
The analytic approach is pretty consistent with how we will look at things. We will look at not just how best to meet the requirement set, but also what do those requirements cost you? What real warfighting capability do they bring in a trade-space analysis? That methodology I would expect to continue in any analyses of alternatives that we do.
How is that different from the thinking in the past?
In the past it was, “What’s the best way to meet that requirement?” The analyses here are looking very closely at, “We understand the requirement is there but what does it buy you in terms of warfighting results?” If the sense is it doesn’t really bring much payoff, then that brings other solutions that are more affordable into play.
Do some of those more affordable options include increased international cooperation?
We have some examples where we’ve done it. Wideband Global Satcom and AEHF come to mind immediately. I will tell you that candidly, it isn’t our first thought. It is an element of how we achieve that resilience. There are advantages if you can do it internationally and I think we’re learning to think of those more as a first type of approach. It just hasn’t historically been the way we’ve done business.
The commander of Air Force Space Command has been vocal with his unhappiness about the lack of competition in GPS navigation payloads. Will the Air Force seek to create competition in this or other areas where it currently does not exist?
As a general rule, we favor having a competitive environment. I think you’re starting to see competitive solutions with launch. As we move forward, I don’t see any of these ideas we’re looking at in the analysis of alternatives as anything but competitive procurements going forward. The challenge we run into is sustaining a competitive environment when you’re not buying large quantities of things or when you’re not doing repeated buys very often. That’s the argument that’s made with the resilience argument: If you’re buying more, more often, you would probably have more competitions.
Do you expect other launch companies to follow Space Exploration Technologies Corp. into the national security market in the coming years?
We do. We have a statement of intent from Orbital Sciences Corp. They’ve already done space station resupply with the Antares. It’s a challenge to see how much the market will bear. Our view is the more the merrier. We are working very diligently to get SpaceX certified. Millions of dollars’ worth of tech support. We’ve got one of their flights certified. We’ve got a number of their engineering review boards certified. We’re hoping to get that done by the end of this calendar year.
When do you expect all national security launches to be competitively bid?
The strategy on exactly how to do that is being worked by the Space and Missiles System Center, but the expectation is to compete the booster sales after 2017.
Has the budget crunch forced the space enterprise to fight harder for DoD dollars?
I think everybody is fighting hard for dollars. Space gets a fair bit of scrutiny because space is an expensive place to work. It gets pretty strong support because it is a joint force multiplier. What we’ve been able to do through smart constellation management is to find some savings, which is a responsible answer to the budget challenges we’ve had.
Can you depend on that approach in the future?
There’s not any reason to think we’ll suddenly have a health problem with our constellations. By the same token, I wouldn’t expect us to again find those savings. We’ve extended the replenishment plans but I don’t know if you get to do that again.
What are some of the milestones we should expect to see in the next six to 12 months?
The Space Fence is a foundational piece of work toward increasing our space situational awareness. Getting the Family of Advanced Beyond-Line-of-Sight Terminals contract finally awarded. Those are both due by summer. To me, those would be pretty huge. I’d like to see us award a new entrant launch this year. If we can get that through certification, that’s huge.
Tensions with Russia have brought increased scrutiny on the fact that one of the Air Force’s two main satellite launchers, the Atlas 5, is powered by the Russian-built RD-180 engine. What are the implications?
It’s been a very good performing engine for us. The policy issues may drive us to other alternatives. If they do, we have the ability to do that, but not without cost.
SpaceX’s Elon Musk has suggested canceling the planned block buy of Atlas 5 and Delta 4 rockets from United Launch Alliance because of this. Is that feasible?
The pricing is based upon on the number of units that we said we expected to buy. If we don’t comply with those quantities, then the pricing is up for renegotiation.
The U.S. Government Accountability Office has repeatedly mentioned problems in syncing satellites with associated ground systems and terminals. How do you fix that?
Synchronization of any space system with the ground system and user segment is always challenging in a development environment. You inevitably find technological challenges in development that you didn’t expect. It’s not unusual for those different segments to have different contractors. Keeping that synchronization is not without cost. We will allow some variation as we go forward for efficiency’s sake but it drives inefficiency in the final implementation. Is it a problem? The GAO certainly says so. I think it’s something we’ve worked pretty hard to correct. It’s not a trivial thing to fix.
Follow Mike on Twitter: @Gruss_SN