New U.S. Space Command Chief Makes Case for Revamping Satellite Constellations
HUNTSVILLE, Ala. — In his first public comments since the U.S. Senate confirmed his appointment as the next leader of Air Force Space Command, Gen. John Hyten made a forceful case for the service to adopt a new space architecture and said he expects to make recommendations to the Pentagon on the future of several major satellite programs by the end of the year.
Speaking here in his hometown at the Space and Missile Defense Symposium Aug. 12, Hyten said the Defense Department and Congress must increasingly view space as they do other war domains. This view argues for improving space situational awareness and bolstering the resiliency of military satellite constellations.
Specifically, Hyten said he expects Air Force officials to complete long-running analyses of alternatives on the future of the service’s missile warning and protected communications satellite programs sometime this fall. Space Command will then make a recommendation to the Pentagon on the future of those programs.
The Air Force has long considered separating the strategic and tactical payloads of its Advanced Extremely High Frequency secure communications satellites as well as separating the staring and scanning sensors on the Space Based Infrared System missile warning satellites. The strategic AEHF payloads are used for managing nuclear operations and require the highest degree of radiation hardening and security. The scanning sensors on SBIRS look for missile launches across wide swaths of territory, whereas the staring sensors cover smaller areas but provide quicker alerts.
Hyten became the service’s top uniformed official for space Aug. 15. He replaced Gen. William Shelton, who retired.
As expected, Hyten’s comments were consistent with the vision for military space Shelton has laid out in recent years, although they hinted at a greater impatience with resistance to this approach.
In outlining the necessity of building a more robust constellation architecture, Hyten said, “I don’t understand why it’s so difficult for people to understand that basic warfighting constraint.”
Hyten said the military space community must overcome the cultural resistance to change that stems in part from the difficulties the Air Force had in developing the current-generation satellite constellations.
Skeptics in the Pentagon and on Capitol Hill say, “‘You finally figured out how to build these satellites and now you want to change it,’” he said. “Those satellites were built in 1994. The world has changed since 1994.”
Hyten emphasized, however, that the Air Force, in developing the next-generation systems, cannot afford the $3 billion to $5 billion in nonrecurring engineering costs that have often accompanied large military space programs. Program risks, he said, must be eliminated before satellite production begins, a reference to criticisms that the Pentagon’s 1990s-era satellite development programs incurred steep cost overruns largely because of design flaws that manifested themselves after production began.
Hyten also said he was excited about the forthcoming capabilities of the Geosynchronous Space Situational Awareness system, whose first two satellites were launched July 28. The satellites’ sensors have not yet been turned on, he noted.
“It’s going to be an amazing game changer,” he said.
Hyten also weighed in on the question of whether the United States should pursue a new-generation rocket engine, arguing for a technology program to develop a liquid-oxygen/hydrocarbon engine that could be “the best in the world.” That question has arisen amid doubts about the future availability of the Russian-built RD-180 engine that powers’s Atlas 5 rocket, one of the two main workhorses of the Air Force’s fleet.
He characterized the Atlas 5 as “the most beautiful rocket ever built by man,” but said, “[w]e should not be dependent on Russia for our access to space.”