WASHINGTON — Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson often reminds audiences that America is “the best in the world at space, and adversaries know it.” But nobody can predict how long that advantage will last. The Pentagon warned in the 2018 National Defense Strategy that “new threats to commercial and military uses of space are emerging” and the nation must “prioritize investments in resilience, reconstitution and operations to assure our space capabilities.”
The challenge for the Air Force — or a Space Force if one is established in the future — is how to take concepts like “resilience” and “reconstitution” and apply them to actual programs as new systems are being developed. A game plan for how that might be done will be rolled out in the coming weeks by the Aerospace Corp. — a nonprofit federally funded think tank that provides technical advice to the U.S. Air Force and the National Reconnaissance Office on military space programs.
“Our focus has been on ‘where is the architecture?’” Aerospace CEO Steve Isakowitz told SpaceNews.
The architecture in this case is the “totality of the satellites and the supporting systems that enable you to conduct a mission,” he explained. “It’s beyond a single element.”
The idea is to have a flexible architecture so satellites can be updated with new payloads as needs emerge, constellations can be quickly augmented and launch vehicles are available to carry out these missions on short notice, said Isakowitz. “We have to operate at an enterprise level” to make this work, he said. It also requires “streamlined decision making” on the part of the government.
Deputy Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan earlier this year asked the corporation to recommend a plan to “outpace the threat in space,” said Isakowitz. After several months of studies and analysis, the company is preparing to host a series of meetings with space industry executives and government officials to discuss the “enterprise” approach to make space systems more resilient and take advantage of fast-moving commercial space innovation.
“Since I joined Aerospace more than two years ago we’ve seen a need for change,” he said. The Trump administration’s push to establish a Space Force has consumed much of the oxygen in the conversation about the military’s future in space but the reorganization is not necessarily relevant to this discussion. “We can support decision makers with ‘technical truths,’” he said, regardless if they are in the Air Force, the Space Force or the forthcoming Space Development Agency.
A central piece in the acquisition strategy is to ensure there’s warm production lines in the defense and space sectors so contractors can more quickly respond if there is a conflict where space systems might come under attack. Isakowitz said this idea of “continuous production agility” is a major departure from the way things are done in DoD today. Agile production methods are standard in the commercial space industry, “but the question is whether the government is capable of taking advantage of it,” he said.
The Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center that acquires most military space systems for decades has focused on “mission unique requirements,” he said. “Industry might have flexible designs but everyone is asking for something different.” For contractors, that means separate assembly lines might be required to produce versions of the same satellite because different government programs demand unique parts and have specific testing requirements. “That is highly inefficient,” said Isakowitz. SMC is now “moving to take a cross cutting view, and establish a more modular architecture,” he said. But it is still not clear to many contractors how this new approach will be executed.
The government traditionally buys a bus, payload and ground segment as a package, he said. “That does not give you flexibility to swap out and change pieces.” Under the enterprise view, “ground systems can handle any satellite,” said Isakowitz. “We have seen this in the commercial industry.”
Production agility has eroded in government programs partly due to the successful performance of military satellites. “We used to launch lots of satellites in the early days of the space age,” he said. But many satellites ended up living longer than anticipated, “so we didn’t build as many and there were fewer opportunities to insert new technologies.”
That created a mindset where “customers realized the train only leaves ever 10 to 20 years,” Isakowitz noted. “Everyone is trying to stuff more requirements into one satellite, and making it more expensive.” As U.S. adversaries gain access to anti-satellite weapons, the United States can’t build more exquisite satellites, he added. “What we need to do is reverse that trend, go back to shorter lived satellites, more proliferated, in constellations where we have more opportunity for tech insertion.”
This also makes economic sense, said Isakowitz. “What is so obvious is that when you give the industrial base the stability they need in their production, you can dramatically drop costs.” Too many space programs ended up with exorbitant price tags because they had to absorb “non recurring costs” such as research, development and testing, and few were ultimately produced. “Every time we start and stop, it drives costs,” he said. “When you’re flying things more often, you can begin to accept more risk in an individual satellite while still maintaining the quality we expect today from a constellation.”
One program worth emulating is the military Global Positioning System, said Isakowitz. “GPS is a good example of how to make systems more resilient. If one satellite goes down, it’s OK because we have such a robust constellation up there. We need to do that more.”
Aerospace will host three conferences in early 2019 to discuss these issues with industry and government officials. One is scheduled in January at the company’s headquarters in El Segundo, Calif. Another is planned for February at the company’s office in Arlington, Va. A third one, possibly in late February, would coincide with an Air Force request for industry ideas on how to implement agile production, said Isakowitz. “We’ll have an open discussion on what it will take to make it work.”