Delays in U.S. Military Satellite Studies Could Be Limiting

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WASHINGTON — Several highly anticipated U.S. Air Force studies aimed at helping the service plan its next-generation satellite systems are taking months if not years longer than expected, much to the frustration of senior Pentagon officials.

Deborah Lee James, secretary of the Air Force, told the Senate Armed Services strategic forces subcommittee April 29 that the studies, known as analyses of alternatives, or AOAs, have “taken way longer than anticipated” and have been a source of “frustration” for herself and for Bob Work, the deputy secretary of defense.

During a May 5 panel discussion here at the Women in Aerospace conference, representatives from the Defense Department, intelligence community and National Security Council shared James’ assessment, but said the delay is helping the service think through its next-generation satellite architectures.

Deborah Lee James Air Force
Deborah Lee James, secretary of the Air Force, told a Senate panel that the analyses of alternatives have “taken way longer than anticipated.” Credit: USAF/Scott M. Ash

“They’ve taken too long, but there’s a good reason for that,” said Doug Loverro, deputy assistant secretary of defense for space policy. “When we entered into those AOAs, resiliency was not on the table. It was not part of the lexicon. It was not defined at a department level.”

But with what U.S. government officials say is the emergence of new threats to satellite systems from China and Russia, resiliency has become a top requirement for any new space architecture. The results of an exhaustive Defense Department examination of its space capabilities, known as the Space Portfolio Review, persuaded the Pentagon to insert resiliency as a primary consideration in the AOAs, which up to that time had been largely trading cost versus capability, Loverro said.

Results of that Space Portfolio Review, completed last summer, are not classified but have not yet been released, Loverro said. SpaceNews has formally requested a summary of the report.

Chirag Parikh, director of space policy at the White House National Security Council, described the change in thinking as “a paradigm shift” in space policy.

“There’s been a lot of good progress this past year, but there’s a lot more homework to do,” said James Martin, director of defense intelligence for intelligence strategy, programs and resources in the office of the intelligence undersecretary.

Jim Martin
James Martin, director of defense intelligence for intelligence strategy, programs and resources in the office of the intelligence undersecretary.
Credit: USGIF

Loverro said several of the analyses are “very close.”

In the latest of its annual military space acquisition reports, the U.S. Government Accountability Office said the AOAs have the potential to “dramatically shift DOD’s approach to providing capabilities, affecting not only satellite design, but also ground systems, networks, user equipment, and the industrial base.”

But the report, released April 29, took a more critical view of the drawn-out AOA process.“The longer DOD takes to complete the AOAs and come to a consensus on how to proceed, the more its range of choices will be constrained,” the report said. “If decisions are not timely, DOD may be forced to continue with existing approaches for its next systems, effectively continuing with legacy systems.”

The AOAs underway include one on protected satellite communications and one on missile warning, critical capabilities whose next-generation satellite systems will replace the Advanced Extremely High Frequency satellites and Space Based Infrared System, respectively. Those studies are expected to be completed later this year.

The GAO report said Air Force officials knew they needed to start the SBIRS study in 2008, but did not do so until early 2014.

A weather satellite study, completed in October 2013 and approved in 2014, recommended that the Air Force forgo launching a legacy satellite and proceed directly with a new approach featuring a smaller satellite and reliance on data from other assets, including non-U.S.-government satellites. But the realization that Europe would not replace an aging satellite that the Defense Department has been relying on for coverage of the Indian Ocean region prompted the Air Force to adopt plans to launch the legacy Defense Meteorological Satellite Program satellite.

Meanwhile, the Air Force plans to begin a study on wideband satellite communications as soon as this October. Industry officials have questioned whether this analysis will be completed in time to help the Air Force make an informed decision on a replacement for its current-generation Wideband Global Satcom satellites in the fiscal year 2017 budget.