Amid declining budgets and increased threats, the U.S. Air Force has made clear it will not accept the status quo for its space programs. 

If there is one company that represents the status quo, it is Lockheed Martin Space Systems, prime contractor on some of the Air Force’s biggest and most expensive satellite programs, including missions for missile warning, highly protected communications, narrowband communications and navigation.

Mark Valerio, who oversees Lockheed Martin’s military space business, isn’t overly impressed with trendy concepts like disaggregation, whereby large, multimission satellites would be supplemented or even replaced by smaller, more focused craft. The Air Force wants industry to find the sweet spot of affordability, capability and resilience, and disaggregation is but a small part of the solution, he says.

Nonetheless, two of the programs widely viewed as prime candidates for disaggregation are Lockheed Martin’s: the Space Based Infrared System for missile warning and the Advanced Extremely High Frequency secure communications satellites.

Another Lockheed Martin program, the next-generation GPS 3 satellite navigation system, is two years behind its original schedule, a fact over which the Air Force has done nothing to hide its displeasure.

Valerio spoke recently with SpaceNews staff writer Mike Gruss.

The GPS 3 program has been slowed by delays with the navigation payload. When do you expect delivery?

We’ll meet the date the Air Force set. They set it at the end of 2015.

We’ve heard conflicting messages on the health of the current GPS constellation. What’s your assessment? 

When people say they’re fragile, most of those satellites that are beyond their design life are running on single redundancy systems. Many of them are on the backup system. Many of them are single string, meaning if that system were to fail then you lose the mission. A lot of people say if you have a large solar flare, that could cause an issue. Right now they’re doing well. [But] you could lose three satellites in a short period of time. It’s hard to predict. 

The Air Force is considering reopening competition on the GPS 3 program beginning with the ninth satellite. What do you have to do differently now? 

We have to deliver the commitments we made. That doesn’t change.

The Air Force is looking to slow the rate of GPS 3 satellite purchases from two to one per year. What is the cost impact of doing so?

We haven’t been asked to look at that yet. As long as we’re still in production, the cost doesn’t go up a whole lot and there isn’t a large gap, mostly in the supply chain.

Could the new GPS 3 satellites launch on Space Exploration Technologies Corp.’s Falcon 9 rocket?

The Air Force has asked us to do a study to see if we are compatible with SpaceX and we are, and that’s not a surprise. It’s a great little booster. I love what they’re doing.

Lockheed Martin has studied the possibility of launching GPS 3 satellites two at a time to save money. What’s the next step before dual launch becomes a reality?

We have that capability. We haven’t been asked to do that yet and that goes back to constellation health. Say you had a bad day and you lost several satellites. Well, we could launch two immediately. We can do it. It’s technically feasible. 

Lockheed Martin has done an extensive study on improving the resiliency of the Air Force’s satellite constellations. What role do you see here for disaggregation?  

It’s still one of the tools in the toolkit on how to improve resiliency. We’re not the only company to do a study. Boeing did a study. Actually, our results are very, very similar. Disaggregation by itself doesn’t help you a whole lot. But there are things that go with it that increase the value of resiliency. We’ve looked at 2,000 different alternatives to the current architecture — everything from the ground, to the satellite, to the data dissemination, the whole nine yards — and have evaluated every one of those about how does it improve your resiliency score on your mission.

How do you improve resiliency without disaggregation?

Without even thinking of the satellite, improving your cybersecurity, improving your ground infrastructure protection — you can do that by having redundant ground systems. They take out one ground system, you have another ground system. We found some of the weakest links in the whole value chain are cybersecurity and ground infrastructure. There are tons of ways of improving resiliency without disaggregation.

What’s an example of where disaggregation could work?

The best mission for disaggregation is space situational awareness because it requires sensors, it requires free-flying platforms, it requires multiple sensors on geo, it requires things like Space Fence. It’s a diversity of missions. It’s a perfect mission. Weather’s a really good mission for disaggregation as well. If you look at all the instruments that are up flying on various platforms, whether they be NASA, civil or commercial platforms, that can be taken and then integrated to help the weather mission. 

Has Lockheed Martin done anything in recent years to improve the resiliency of systems like SBIRS and AEHF?

The objective is finding the sweet spot of affordability, capability and resilience. We’re investing money on how to do that with our programs of record. How do we drive down the cost of SBIRS and AEHF? You saw on AEHF, where we reduced the cost of satellites five and six by over 40 percent. We’re coming up on an agreement here on SBIRS which will be around the same ballpark.  

Wasn’t the cost of the fourth AEHF satellite inflated by a production gap between that and the third satellite?

The original estimate for AEHF-4 was higher than previous estimates because of gaps and obsolescence and the supply chain restart. What that savings number is is compared to the Office of the Secretary of Defense estimate if you bought five and six separately.

How soon do you expect to sign the contract for the fifth and sixth SBIRS satellites? 

It should be done in the next 30 days.

What’s next for the SBIRS program?

The analysis of alternatives comes out. Of course we want to keep driving the cost down. What’s different is technology improvements come along — there are new capabilities: wide field of view focal planes, the Commercially Hosted Infrared Payload. Advances in that technology continue to be made. That provides great opportunity.  

Boeing says it has demonstrated new waveforms that enable protected communications to be delivered via the Wideband Global Satcom and even commercial satellites. Where does AEHF fit into the debate over what protected means?

These protected waveforms provide some level of protection over completely unprotected WGS and the commercial systems. Boeing’s claim that WGS is as protected as AEHF is not even close. It’s like locking your screen door: It’s fantastic in Evergreen, Colorado. It doesn’t work very well where I grew up in Philadelphia. 

Did you expect the seventh and eighth satellites in the AEHF program to be pushed out of the Air Force’s five-year plan as they were in this year’s budget request?

It was not a surprise to us. I didn’t expect the satellites to be in this year’s budget or next year’s budget.  Knowing the analysis of alternatives is in process, you wouldn’t be budgeting for a number of satellites yet.

Do you expect AEHF’s tactical and strategic missions to be separated?

That one makes more sense than SBIRS. There’s a lot of electronics that control both the starer and the scanner on the SBIRS satellites. There’s an advantage to being able to get the data from both of the sensors. You get a lot of advantage in accuracy in sensitivity. If you separated those two, you’d have to replicate all those electronics. 

What’s the best thing to do with the last of the Lockheed Martin-built Defense Meteorological Satellite Program satellites?

We’ve looked at a number of what-ifs with the Air Force. What if we launched in 2016? What if we launch in 2020? What’s the best time to launch it? All the instrument folks, you have to keep them around; all the government folks, keep them around. My personal opinion is a launch in 2016 makes more sense. The satellite’s been around a while. 

A component of a payload on the third Mobile User Objective System satellite failed in testing. What is the status there?

Vehicle four is now through thermal vacuum test. It’s slated to launch in the first quarter of 2015. Vehicle five is coming along in environmental testing. This flexibility is one advantage you get when you are under contract. We continue to see a great learning curve. It’s on track. We continue to fix the legacy payload on vehicle three. 

It’s not fixed yet?

It won’t be fully fixed in my mind until we get it through thermal vac. You’ve got to get past the test you failed. It will most likely be the last one to launch.

How much of an appetite is there for MUOS capabilities internationally?

 We did respond to the [request for information] that the Canadians put out for a communications and weather satellite. MUOS does not only voice, but data transfer at 89.5 degrees [north latitude], which is fantastic. It’s spec is at 60 degrees and it’s operated well beyond that. It provides a very cost effective way to solve some of the Canadian communication problems they have as well as NATO and other folks there. They’re still in source selection. 

Follow Mike on Twitter: @Gruss_SN

Mike Gruss is a senior staff writer for SpaceNews. He joined the publication in January 2013 to cover military space. Previously, he worked as a reporter and columnist for The Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk, Va. and The Journal Gazette in Fort Wayne, Ind. He...