COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — Not much has changed since the Cold War in the way the United States buys and builds its space systems, but the nation and its industrial base now face challenges that require doing many things differently, a senior U.S. Air Force official said April 13.
Despite the hurdles that lie ahead for the United States in space, systems that are on orbit now are providing spectacular and essential capabilities to joint forces around the globe, U.S. Air Force Gen. Robert Kehler, commander of Air Force Space Command, said at the National Space Symposium here.
The space environment has undergone drastic changes in the past few decades, Kehler said. It has evolved from a domain with just a few players to one with many players. Satellites have become more complex and capable, and space is no longer likely to be a sanctuary, Kehler said.
In decades past, the United States was more willing to accept risk and better able to pay the high costs of technology development for its satellite systems, Kehler said. Now, the Defense Department must devise a better strategy to manage a budget that is constrained, an industrial base that is fragile and an aversion to risk that threatens the advancement of technology.
“We are entering a period of constrained resources,” Kehler said. “That is another influencer on the way we go forward. If we are not mindful of this, if we just convince ourselves that this goes in cycles and it will all pass, then I think some of you will be standing out there in 2020 or 2030 looking back and saying, ‘What were they thinking?’”
The United States has benefited over the years from a healthy industrial base that was strengthened by competition. Today, the industrial base is far less robust: In some areas there is no competition, and some sectors would disappear entirely without sustained government patronage, Kehler said. The Air Force has not taken industrial base concerns into account in its acquisition decisions, but it must start to do so, he said. And it must change the incentive structure for industry.
“I believe that where we find ourselves today is based on a set of incentives that were linked to industrial competitiveness in a broadly based industry,” Kehler said. “So the incentives for the government were incentives to leverage you against one another to get the lowest price, best results, etc. I don’t know that we are there anymore. Now what I didn’t say is, ‘Don’t compete,’ because I do believe competition is still necessary. But the question is, what are the incentives?
“We’re going to have to look at this differently. It’s about the end result, not something that happens in the middle. So my simple mind says, deliver on time the capability that we need, and then get paid. I don’t know, maybe that’s what we’re doing today, but it sure doesn’t feel like it to me.”
Another challenge facing the national security space community is developing cutting-edge technologies while at the same time guarding against cost growth and delays. The Air Force has attempted to do this in recent years through the practice of developing its satellites in increasingly capable blocks. The GPS 3 constellation, though relatively early in its development, is proving that technologies can be developed incrementally and inserted over time, Kehler said.
But the United States must continue to invest in the technologies of the future or risk standing still and losing its competitive edge, Kehler said. The amount of bureaucracy involved with space programs has also increased in recent years and must be kept in check, he said.
“If it takes years to get through a requirements process to get to the beginning of a program, something’s wrong with the process and we need to go address it,” Kehler said.
Meanwhile, the United States has had some great successes in recent years and is poised for several more important advancements in space, Kehler said. The Wideband Global Satcom constellation that began launching in 2007 has provided a sharp increase in bandwidth available to U.S. troops and allies. The GPS constellation is as large as it has ever been, and some satellites are now being repositioned to allow for better coverage over difficult terrains and urban canyons. The Air Force this year will begin launching a new generation of highly protected communications satellites and the first Space Based Space Surveillance satellite for orbital monitoring. And the path to soon launching the first of a long-awaited series of missile warning satellites now appears clear, Kehler said.
The United States and its industry partners have all the pieces needed to continue the long legacy of great successes in space, Kehler said. What is needed now is a strategy that fits all of those pieces together in a way that makes the most sense for the environment of today.
“We are on the edge of something here,” he said. “We are on the edge of our ability to continue that string of successes that’s focused, in our case, on providing for the joint team and the national security needs of the nation.”