Air Force Satellite Control Network
Air Force Satellite Control Network. Credit: Schriever Air Force Base

WASHINGTON — Even as it works to renew and consolidate existing contracts to support its satellite control facilities, the U.S. Air Force is taking exploratory steps toward fully outsourcing most if not all of its satellite operations.

Such a move could save money by allowing the service to reduce or possibly even eliminate much of its satellite control infrastructure, industry sources said.

“Air Force Space Command is planning an extensive analysis/assessment to develop and select a new satellite control operations architecture and the associated concept of operations,” the service said in an April report to congressional defense committees.

As an initial step in that process, the Air Force in April issued a draft request for proposals for studies of concepts to commercialize the Air Force Satellite Control Network (AFSCN), which operates and controls many of the Defense Department’s satellites. The draft solicitation was updated June 9, according to a posting on the Federal Business Opportunities website.

“In the long term, the Air Force intends to leverage satellite control services available through industry,” the Air Force said in its report, titled “Satellite Control Modernization Plan.” “Initial planning is currently underway, via the AFSCN Commercial Provisioning Assessment, to determine cost savings associated with off-loading some AFSCN contacts.”

Space Command is seeking to reduce its operations costs as Defense Department budgets have shrunk in recent years. The situation could worsen with the automatic budget cuts known as sequestration still on the table for fiscal year 2016.

Industry sources say these pressures are pushing Air Force Space Command to explore cost-cutting measures sooner rather than later.

One target for savings, especially popular among the space leadership, is the AFSCN. The network “provides satellite tracking, telemetry and commanding to National Security Space users using approximately 15 satellite ground-space antennas at seven locations around the world,” according to the Air Force solicitation.

The network, which is centered at Schriever Air Force Base in Colorado, is staffed by Air Force personnel with support from government contractors like Honeywell and Harris Corp. These companies are vying for a follow-on contract dubbed Consolidated AFSCN Modification, Maintenance and Operations, or CAMMO, that could be worth $500 million, with an award expected next April.

At the same time, however, the service wants to see whether it makes sense in the future to parcel out bits and pieces of its satellite operations to commercial companies. Potential bidders for that work could include not only companies like Universal Space Network, the Swedish-owned outfit that provides satellite control services for both government and industry customers, but also commercial satellite operators who already own much of the needed infrastructure.

In the draft solicitation, the Air Force’s Space and Missile Systems Center, the service’s main space acquisition arm, said it was evaluating the feasibility of using a commercial tracking, telemetry and command service to reduce costs.

The Air Force expects to award three firm-fixed price commercialization study contracts, including one to a small business, by Sept. 1, the report to Congress said. Businesses could suggest which portion of the network they would be able to manage, such as satellites in all orbits or satellites in one particular orbit, such as low Earth or geosynchronous orbit.

Responses are expected to include a plan on how to transition the control over a two- to five-year time frame.

“That information will allow the Air Force to determine the best approach to offloading contacts to a commercial network,” the report said. “Ultimately, the solution will enable the Air Force to define levels of contract services, reducing dependency on a unique Air Force network for routine operations.”

Industry officials said a commercial business or team would have significantly fewer workers monitoring the satellites, possibly less than half or a third of the work force the Air Force currently uses. This would work in part because companies have been able to automate many steps the service still does manually, sources said.

This would enable Air Force officers currently occupied with flying satellites to work on other space-related activities.

The service also would be able to reduce its infrastructure footprint, something it is also looking to do with other space-related activities like satellite pre-launch processing.

“The mission is about the data,” not the infrastructure, a source said.

One model for the future, according to the report, is an open-system ground architecture that supports multiple missions as opposed to software that is customized for each satellite constellation.

Mike Gruss covers military space issues, including the U.S. Air Force and Missile Defense Agency, for SpaceNews. He is a graduate of Miami University in Oxford, Ohio.