HUNTSVILLE, Ala. — The head of U.S. Air Force Space Command is pressing ahead with an initiative to commercialize some of the service’s satellite operations and move others to a new common ground system.
The top-to-bottom review of the Air Force’s satellite ground infrastructure is driven in part by budget constraints and emerging threats from China and Russia. Air Force leaders want to use uniformed space personnel more for battle management operations and save money on expensive infrastructure.
“Even our newest systems lack required resiliency and survivability,” Gen. John Hyten, commander of Space Command, said in a letter to senior subordinates. “We must retool our entire space architecture to one that can be commanded through a robust common platform.”
The July 29 letter appears intended to provide direction as the Air Force begins what is expected to be a two-year process of mapping out its next-generation satellite ground architecture. The transition plan, as currently envisioned, would see the various satellite programs added to the common ground system during the 2020s as they are updated with new technology.
Hyten and other Air Force officials previously have discussed outsourcing the operation of satellite systems such as Wideband Global Satcom and GPS. Many of these systems are controlled by the Air Force Satellite Control Network (AFSCN), for which the service is exploring commercialization opportunities.
The AFSCN, centered at Schriever Air Force Base in Colorado, is staffed by Air Force personnel with support from government contractors like Honeywell Aerospace of Phoenix and Harris Corp. of Melbourne, Florida. By all accounts, the infrastructure is inefficient and badly in need of modernization.
Last year, the Air Force issued study contracts to four companies to examine how they might pick up the slack should the service elect to shutter one or more of its satellite-operating facilities.
In his memo, Hyten specifically suggested transferring operations of the Air Force’s newest satellite system, the previously classified Geosynchronous Space Situational Awareness Program (GSSAP) that launched in July 2014, from the AFSCN to what he characterized as a “true enterprise ground system.”
Space Command provided SpaceNews with a copy of the memo, an addendum to a “Statement of Commander’s Intent” issued last year by Hyten shortly after he took over.
Hyten has made clear that the Air Force cannot afford separate ground systems for each of its satellite constellations. During the 31st Space Symposium in April, he said it was the “dumbest thing in the world” that the service has five satellite systems with five separate ground stations at Schriever.
In his memo, Hyten warned against allowing “sunk costs to drive decisions” as the Air Force moves to a new satellite operations scheme. “We must weigh the both the impact of repurposing Airmen for mission operations and return on investment,” he wrote.
Hyten’s memo also outlined priorities for the Air Force’s space operations and traffic management center, known as the Joint Space Operations Center (JSpOC), at Vandenberg Air Force Base, California. The center, he said, must fully take over from the legacy Space Defense Operations Center and incorporate a wider array of sensor data.
The Air Force recently awarded a contract for a new radar system, called the Space Fence, that will dramatically increase the number of objects being tracked by the JSpOC.
Defense Department officials are planning the Joint Interagency Coalition Space Operations Center with the intelligence community as a potential backup to the JSpOC, although leaders have said that it could eventually evolve into the primary space operations site.