I think our space leaders understand the unrelenting pressures that are placed on the acquisition, deployment and operation of space missions — the community faces tremendous competition on budget priorities, all while our young troops have grown more dependent on and demand more and more capabilities provided from space. U.S. government space budgets are not going to continue rising, at least for many years. They are even likely to decline. Spacecraft acquisition programs are struggling as they have been saddled with non-executable technical, schedule and cost baselines, and onerous acquisition rules. Our major acquisitions are suffering severe cost growth and overrun problems. Additionally, capabilities have become contested at the same time that they are critical to our warfighters. So, how do we assure that space capabilities will remain available for our troops on the ground, at sea, and in the air? Given the need, the obvious reaction to the budget reductions of cutting back on systems and capabilities is just not a viable answer.
Why are we where we are? The space acquisition community is faced with a complex and vicious acquisition circle. Each part of the circle compounds problems for the next. For example, we tend to want to group requirements and try to get everything we can think of when starting the space systems acquisition process. This approach to put as many requirements as possible into a single mission is called aggregation, and is also used to build stronger cross-mission advocacy. It also minimizes the number of new starts. I suspect the thinking behind this is that if the U.S. government is not going to approve many new starts, we should better structure programs to get everything we can out of the few new ones we fund.
As users demand more and acquirers propose systems designed to do a lot of different things, this has the unfortunate consequence of generating complex sets of technical requirements for space acquisition efforts. Sometimes these requirements are at cross purposes. As a result, very complicated payloads are proposed, and they usually turn out to be very expensive to build and operate. Since this approach is expensive, funding for robust ground systems and/or space sparing is just not achievable. Then, with no spares, the acquirers must significantly increase system reliability, again increasing overall program cost. Very expensive payloads are produced, with long development cycles and no spares. Unfortunately, with no spares, programs cannot afford a launch failure. This demands 100 percent launch success rates, which are impossible to achieve, and this entails another expensive process. Ultimately, our space systems become more and more complex and expensive, with no room for failure.
Though using aggregation acquisition strategies, the people that participate in the acquisition of space systems remain some of the most dedicated and intelligent people in U.S. government service, industry and academia. I do not believe they have “lost the formula,” like some say. I also do not believe they are inflexible and stuck in the way they are doing business. They have to build what acquisition rules demand and allow. They are doing the best anyone can do, coping with acquisition rules and strategies that need revision.
So, the question is: How do we break out of this circle? Many believe the application of disaggregation (as espoused by Air Force Gen. Kevin Chilton, commander of U.S. Strategic Command, and Air Force Gen. Robert Kehler, who will replace him after his retirement Feb. 1), combined with mixed constellations, is the smart answer. Disaggregation is the concept of splitting the missions into smaller and more consistent and achievable requirements. This strategy presents a good opportunity to confront and reduce overall acquisition costs, and acquisition rules should be revised to encourage it.
So the first bold step to address the space acquisition crisis is to apply disaggregation approaches. While aggregating missions heretofore has been done in good faith, and by those who thought aggregating would help program advocacy and lower costs, the actual result in terms of cost was the opposite. Costs have gone through the roof. If we disaggregate, however, we can simplify entire space segments, and produce and operate simpler satellites. This should help reduce technical complexity, and shorten the development cycles. In turn, this should improve industry production rates and mission survivability through a greater volume of systems.
Once we simplify systems, and reduce the complexity, we can look to leverage the use of shorter system lifetimes. On its face this sounds strange, but shorter lifetimes:
- Encourage more rapid technology insertion.
- Enable the ability to accept lower-reliability launches, therefore lowering launch costs.
- Increase reliability by the larger numbers of systems that get built and deployed.
- Reduce the complexities that survivability adds to the space segment.
- Give industry more systems to build, providing more stability and predictability in industry, making industry healthier and supporting the industrial base.
Expanding satellite production should increase industry effectiveness and worker vitality, improve workload predictability, achieve economies of scale, keep vendors more healthy with greater and more predictable workloads and therefore increase reliability and further reduce development costs.
The result would be mixed constellations of smaller disaggregated satellites and larger, flagship-class exquisite systems. In such an architecture, the supplemental use of smaller, more numerous and more easily produced disaggregated systems would make the overall constellation more resilient if attacked or degraded. It would open tactics and techniques to be expanded to include such concepts as on-orbit spares, ground spares, rapid reconstitution, deterrence through resiliency, augmentation and/or surge.
We will never remove the need for all exquisite, complex space systems, but supplementing these with disaggregated systems could be a cost-effective answer to our ability to assure a healthy industry and assure our warfighters that space capabilities will be there when they are needed. A mixed system also could leverage the use of payloads with Class B/C/D approaches by flying them on dedicated commercial buses or as rideshares on commercial or military buses, reducing costs even more. Class B, C and D developments allow you to tailor the approach to priority and risk by adjusting reviews, testing, lifetime, redundancy/single point failures, and complexity.
Of course, data produced by disaggregated systems can be aggregated on the ground. Designing disaggregated systems with open data architectures can enable improved use of data sharing as these systems get built, deployed and operated. This is a very smart idea, and certainly consistent with principles advocated by network-centric operations proponents.
All of this will require a more flexible approach to acquisition at the policy level.
Thomas D. Taverney has been involved in space operations and space systems development for over 42 years, as an active duty and reserve officer, and within the commercial space industry. He is a former vice commander of U.S. Air Force Space Command. He wrote this essay in his personal capacity.