The U.S. economy is in a tenuous place. The nation is $16 trillion in debt and that is increasing by more than $1 trillion a year. Sequestration is bearing down on us, and the United States is now one of only three nations in the world with debt-to-gross-national-product ratios greater than one. Without further White House and congressional direction and guidance, the pressure to pre-emptively reduce the Department of Defense (DoD) budget is immense, and certainly further significant cuts seem unavoidable.
Capabilities provided from space-based systems, once a luxury, are now essential to day-to-day military operations and in the case of GPS to economic and other activities throughout the entire world. Given the budget woes, DoD and the armed services are looking across their portfolios to harvest savings and avoid costs while maintaining essential capabilities. The Air Force has already implemented a round of cuts, and the approach has been to begin taking these cuts immediately, feeling that pushing them to the out-years in hopes of an improving economy would be unrealistic. It has executed difficult decisions, and we can already see the impact on our space community. The Operationally Responsive Space (ORS) Office, the space-based weather system and the Space Test Program are on the verge of joining the previously canceled Transformational Satellite communications system — not because they aren’t required, but because something “just has to give.” While some in the Senate and House have made moves to restore funding to these programs, it’s clear they are in deep trouble.
There are no easy decisions. Fortunately, despite the budget woes and cuts, vital DoD and national security missions have, thus far, remained intact. However, to keep them so, affordability and willingness to accept increased risk must be addressed.
We need to adopt new approaches to improve space system affordability, manage budget and attendant technical risks, and chart a way ahead.
Implementing these new approaches can’t wait in hopes that a next generation of systems will somehow magically turn out to be affordable if we do not change the fundamentals of what we buy, and how we buy it. For example, ORS has already demonstrated that we can quickly integrate and deploy payloads tailored to warfighter needs with ORS-1 being a successful demonstration, and the Air Force has done the same with the Commercially Hosted Infrared Program (CHIRP) flying a wide-field-of-view overhead persistent infrared sensor payload, launched and hosted on an Orbital-builtsatellite. In an exciting turn, these programs are demonstrating that wholesale savings can be gained, and missions effectively performed, if the acquisition community and the user are open to building and flying payloads in innovative ways.
Many other concepts and options are being discussed, and in some cases with plans to implement, such as:
- Disaggregating payloads — separating technically incompatible payloads and not attempting to fly them on the same satellite bus. This allows opportunities for more optimum mission design with lower costs because neither payload gets burdened with the others’ requirements.
- Mixing constellations with higher-cost and lower-cost systems. In this approach, one develops Class A top-of-the-line systems but fewer of them, then mixes in lower-cost Class B/C/D systems that should have higher risk tolerance. This enables owner/operators to create far more robust constellations, with more frequent technology updates, in a more cost-effective fashion.
- Using commercial buses rather than custom buses, and focusing program offices on building payloads rather than entire systems. This approach should be self-explanatory. CHIRP has shown that commercial rideshares are feasible and extremely cost-effective. Commercial buses have been designed to offer great flexibility with plug-and-play features. They also have proven long lifetimes with very stable rides. The commercial bus business has come a long way, providing robust, stable and agile plug-and-play bus families.
- New types of constellations. Redesigned satellite constellations could employ a variety of different orbits, payloads could be flown with a comparable variety of approaches (rideshare, commercial bus, custom-built bus, etc.), and a variety of payloads could be deployed and aggregated to produce or process the data to better execute the same mission needs.
- Providing more affordable/resilient architectures. Introducing lower-cost/shorter-life/simplified satellite systems as part of constellations with more-expensive/longer-life/exquisite systems could increase overall constellation robustness and resiliency, and potentially lower overall system costs.
On the leading edge of all this, U.S. military satellite communications programs are implementing a commercial bus model in the Wideband Global Satcom system; leveraging other cost-saving innovations, including international partnering; and considering disaggregated constellation architectures in a serious way.
So what more should we do now? How should we proceed?
Certainly doing business as usual and saving a few percent here and there on the margins in the hope that significant gains are made through efficiencies is not going to be enough. It’s never really worked. To preserve the tremendous gains achieved in our space community and move to the next higher level, we must prepare to take innovative action and employ out-of-the-box thinking. Both industry and government will need to take more calculated risks than they are used to. Each will have to look at the way their business is done and prepare to do it differently.
With this in mind, they must fully investigate strategies to provide capabilities for significantly reduced costs and ask tough questions:
- Can we do the mission as well or better with a mix of expensive (Class A) and less-expensive (Class B/C/D) systems, while increasing affordability and resiliency?
- Can commercial rideshares and use of commercial buses help the acquisition community avoid expenditures of significant dollars without jeopardizing mission success?
- Can we save money by forging international partnerships?
- Can we keep our industry healthy in times of reduced U.S. budgets by being more flexible in letting it more easily sell to international partners, without jeopardizing national security?
- Can our work with International Traffic in Arms Regulations be more flexible and achieved in the face of today’s realities?
We have a budget tsunami coming our way. We must continue to provide the critical capabilities from space that the DoD has become dependent upon. It is far better to start the process now than to wait.
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.