WASHINGTON — Back in 2005, then one-star general Ellen Pawlikowski commanded the military satellite communications systems wing at the Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center, in Los Angeles. In those days, “survivability wasn’t even on the sheet,” she recalled.

Pawlikowski spent eight of the past 10 years in the Air Force overseeing space programs as vice commander of SMC and in senior posts at the National Reconnaissance Office and the Air Force Research Laboratory. Now the four-star commander of Air Force Materiel Command, Pawlikowski mused about how much the business has been transformed.

“The expectations for our space systems have changed,” she said on Tuesday at a breakfast meeting with reporters.

“When I first got into the space business we talked about space systems as ‘force enhancements,’” she said. Satellite communications, missile warning, navigation were support services that military forces needed, but nobody worried that they had to be survivable. “Our total focus was to provide the best capabilities in each of those areas,” she said. “It was assumed when you put a satellite up there, it was not going to be contested,” she said. “That is no longer the situation.”

Electronic interference or jamming always has been a concern. Today, however, fear of satellites coming under attack has reached new heights following intelligence community warnings about foreign powers deploying advanced “counter-space” technologies.

Today, the assumption that space is a contested battleground is driving “fundamental change” in how systems are designed and developed, said Pawlikowski. “A satellite communications systems can’t just provide great communications. It has to be able to withstand an attack.”

Threats are increasing at the same time the cost of launching satellites into orbit is falling, she noted. “Those two things are driving a change in the way we architect our space. The size of satellites will change. The mobility of satellites will change.”

The Air Force has always built big satellites for practical reasons. “It was expensive to get a launch vehicle so you wanted to put as much as you could onto that satellite because you wanted to get as much as you could out of that launch,” she noted. The business has been turned completely upside down: Launch is cheaper, and huge satellites are harder to defend. “Having multiple things on them makes them very attractive as targets.”

It will be up to the Air Force to figure out how to “leverage” the new technology, said Pawlikowski. The basic process of designing and building satellites is not going to change. But the booming commercial space market has to lead to a transformation in military systems, she added. “Every day you hear about someone getting into the market and launching small satellites. That commercial market, from a space acquisition perspective, means a broader industrial base,” Pawlikowski said. “That will require the space acquisition community to adjust how they do business. These are huge impacts both on the space world at large but also on DoD acquisitions.”

The Air Force is now promoting greater investments in prototypes and experiments to test out emerging technologies. The list of projects that that will be candidates for prototyping is still being hashed out, said Pawlikowski. Whether it’s space or aviation system, this will require a culture shift because prototyping means spending a lot of money on a project that may not pan out and never reach production.

“That’s one of the things we still have to work our way through,” she said. “Most of our budget is tied into big programs of record.” It is still not clear when the military will achieve a “comfort level” with the idea that it will invest in a technology, “knowing that we may not buy it,” she said. “The environment is in place to do this.” The Air Force is trying this approach with light attack aircraft. “When are we going to take the first big plunge and invest dollars in a prototype with the understanding that we may not buy anything?”

Asked to comment on a congressional push to create a separate acquisition workforce in the Air Force for space systems, Pawlikowski said she would not support it. Having switched back and forth between aviation and space programs, there is a huge benefit of “cross flowing.”

Sandra Erwin writes about military space programs, policy, technology and the industry that supports this sector. She has covered the military, the Pentagon, Congress and the defense industry for nearly two decades as editor of NDIA’s National Defense...