MAUI, Hawaii — The U.S. Air Force will begin weaning itself from an outdated hardware and software system that processes the Defense Department’s space surveillance data about a year later than expected, but still plans to complete the bulk of a long-awaited modernization before the end of 2016, the service’s top space officer said Sept. 9. 

Speaking at the Advanced Maui Optical and Space Surveillance Technologies Conference, Gen. John Hyten, commander of Air Force Space Command, said the next batch of upgrades to the military’s space operations nerve center is now expected in late 2015. 

That effort was originally on tap for late this year, according to Air Force budget documents, and would be the first step in reducing the Defense Department’s reliance on the aging Space Defense Operations Center, known as SPADOC. About 75 percent of SPADOC’s components are currently operating beyond their expected end of life, according to Air Force budget documents.

Hyten described SPADOC, which relies on mid-1990s computer technologies, as “that ancient engine that can’t take data from anywhere unless it’s one of ours.”

As a result, the Air Force has been undergoing a broad modernization of the Joint Space Operations Center (JSpOC), the processing center of U.S. military space operations headquartered at Vandenberg Air Force Base, California. In the new system, Air Force officials hope to improve their space surveillance efforts by incorporating data from multiple external sources, not just military radars and telescopes. 

The JSpOC Mission System (JMS) initiative is an ongoing, three-phased effort to replace or upgrade the hardware and software currently used for space surveillance, collision avoidance and launch support, with an eye toward providing more precise and timely orbital information, among other goals.

The modernization effort, initiated in 2009 to address an increasingly complicated and congested space environment, is expected to cost more than $500 million through 2017. The new system replaces the legacy Space Defense Operations Center.

The Government Accountability Office said in March that the update is expected to be completed by December 2016, about two years before the Air Force’s next-generation space surveillance system, the Space Fence, is expected to be operational.

Officials have said the JMS upgrade is required to handle the amount of data the Space Fence will generate.

Already, Hyten said, the Air Force is testing new infrastructure for a broad set of improvements for the JMS known as Increment Two. Within those improvements are subsets of capabilities, known as service packs.

The next round of upgrades, known as Service Pack 9, allows the Air Force to begin moving away from SPADOC and leaning more heavily on the new system.

“I want to get off SPADOC as soon as we can because that’s when we can start using broader data from ourselves and the world,” Hyten said in an interview here.

Service Pack 11, which allows the software to classify satellite deorbits, re-entries, launches and other events, is now expected in mid-2016, he said. That capability had previously been expected in mid-2015, according to budget documents. 

The last of this subset of upgrades, known as Service Pack 13, is expected in late 2016, he said. That delivery was due by the end of 2015, according to Air Force budget documents, although the GAO said in March that December 2016 was more likely. 

The final increment, Increment 3, calls for maintenance of the system. The first set of upgrades in the modernization, known as Increment 1, included basic infrastructure and data display capabilities and was accepted by the Air Force in 2013.

Part of the delay for the upcoming improvements, Hyten said, is that the Air Force is being conservative as it transitions from one system to the next.

Hyten, who acknowledged he has long been a critic of the program in his previous Air Force appointments, said the JMS represents “the keys to the kingdom” but acknowledged the Pentagon acquisition process can be especially cumbersome for software development programs.

“Given where we were five years ago, that’s remarkable,” he said. “I just didn’t think we’d figure out a way to get through.

“But we did. It’s awesome. It’s spectacular.”

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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...