Gen. John Hyten, commander of U.S. Strategic Command

WASHINGTON — The space arms race is accelerating and rivals are closing in on the United States, military officials have warned. But on the question of what to do next, opinions diverge.

Military and civilian leaders have warned that the Pentagon is taking for granted its access and dominance in space while adversaries keep plugging away. Electronic weapons now being developed by Russia and China, they warn, will one day be aimed at U.S. military satellites in orbit.

The United States can win in space today but “it’s not prepared to fight in the future,” said Air Force Gen. John Hyten, commander of U.S. Strategic Command.

“The strength we have today is based on the sheer mass and numbers of capabilities we put up over the years. It dwarves any adversary we face,” Hyten said Dec. 2 at the Reagan National Defense Forum.

But Hyten sees complacency with regard to space. “I’m worried about the future. Somehow this country lost the ability to go fast. I don’t know how that happened,” he said. “We take four years to study a problem before we do anything. We do four years of risk reduction on technologies we built 50 years ago.”

U.S. satellites eventually will be targets of enemy jammers and laser weapons now being developed by Russia and China, he said. “They are building this to change the balance of power in the world. We can’t allow that to happen.”

Many in the Pentagon still don’t get it, Hyten lamented. “We don’t have that much time anymore. We have to change the way we do business. If we don’t do something differently, our advantage in five years may be gone. Ten years from now we could be behind. That is unacceptable.”

As head of U.S. Strategic Command, Hyten is responsible for the global command and control of the nation’s nuclear forces. An electronic attack on U.S. satellites could have catastrophic consequences, and Hyten wants to see drastic changes in satellite procurements. He has been pushing the Air Force to stop buying complex, expensive spacecraft that he believes are “fragile” and “undefendable,” and instead start deploying more resilient networks of smaller, cheaper satellites that can be more easily replaced if they came under attack.

Missile-warning satellites

Not everyone in the Defense Department or in Congress supports that shift. Hyten questioned the Air Force’s procurement strategy for a new missile-warning constellation to succeed the Space-Based Infrared System, or SBIRS. The Air Force last month issued a “request for information” for a “SBIRS follow-on” system, calling it a “unusual and compelling” need and setting a 2029 target date for its deployment.

Hyten called it “ridiculous” that this could take 12 years. “All I need is a commercial bus that we can buy from anybody, I don’t care. I want it to fit in the current ground system so I don’t have to buy a new one.” The focus should be on investing in a “very good sensor” for strategic missile warning that can be attached to any satellite.

Sometimes the Pentagon fails to see, or chooses to ignore the obvious, he said. “We’ll spend a lot of time and money figuring out how to do strategic missile warning, and it’s sitting there right in front of us, and it’s not that hard. But we still try to make it hard.”

Commercial manufacturers can deliver a complex communications satellite in 36 months at a preset price. Meanwhile, the Pentagon has spent years trying to figure out how to buy wideband communications, he noted. “It’s just a commodity. Why don’t we buy it as a commodity?”

The military has to do something about its “requirements process” that delays programs for years, said Hyten. “I can right now write the requirements for a next generation missile warning satellite, or a wideband satellite. I already know what they are. I don’t need years of analysis.”

Also speaking at the Reagan Forum alongside Hyten, Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson said she agreed.

“The requirements process is sclerotic in the Pentagon,” she said.  These “analysis of alternatives” at times seem pointless, Wilson suggested. “This is not revolutionary technology. We are not pushing the boundaries of human knowledge in some of these things. We’re just trying to build something that is well developed. So get after it and get the bureaucracy out of the way.”

Hyten said he is prepared to draw a line in the sand if business as usual continues in the SBIRS follow-on program.

“I’m a combatant commander for missile defense,” he said. “My lever in this process is requirements. My requirement is agile, good enough capability, delivered significantly in advance of 2029.”

Hyten was a colonel in the procurement trenches in the mid-1990s when the Air Force was drawing up its wish list for the current SBIRS constellation. It was a case of “requirements run wild,” he recalled. It started out as a simple satellite. Then people started adding more bells and whistles — a staring sensor, a scanner — and piled on missions — missile defense, battle space awareness, tactical intelligence, theater missile warning, strategic missile warning. “All in one satellite,” Hyten noted.

“Seven billion dollars later we’re still trying to chase that set of requirements,” he said. “We have to hold requirements under control to go fast. I will be adamant about requirements.”

There’s not enough money in the Pentagon’s budget to buy another constellation of billion-dollar satellites and to put up systems to defend them, Hyten said. The answer is going to have to be a different approach. “If you can link $200 million or $100 million satellites, opportunities come up,” he said. “We have to go down that pathway. I can’t control the acquisition process but I can control requirements.”

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...