Profile: Maj. Gen. Craig Cooning, Director of Space Acquisition, Office of the Undersecretary of the U.S. Air Force

It’s not easy being U.S. Air Force Maj. Gen. Craig Cooning these days. His job, demanding to begin with, is bound to become much more so with the March 25 retirement of acting Air Force Secretary Peter B. Teets, the service’s top space acquisition official and space advocate. Teets’ departure leaves a vacuum in Washington that at least in the near term will be largely up to Cooning to fill.

Add to that the cost-growth problems that continue to afflict military space programs — to the growing irritation of the Pentagon’s overseers in Congress — and a picture of the challenges facing Cooning begin to emerge.

But Cooning says he has a good story to tell, and cautions against losing sight of the solid performance of satellite systems in supporting U.S. forces in Iraq and elsewhere. “We hear a lot about the problems, but not a lot about the successes,” he says.

Cooning also enjoys a reputation in Congress as a straight-shooter, which will come in handy because he’ll likely be spending a lot of time on Capitol Hill this spring and summer.

He spoke recently with Space News staff writer Jeremy Singer in his Arlington, Va., office.

Why is the Air Force still struggling with the Space Based Infrared System (SBIRS) High program?

There was a lot of up-front testing on the critical parts and components that we didn’t do on SBIRS early that we discovered later. Tom Young characterized SBIRS as having congenital defects because it was started wrong.

If that is an apt characterization, can you ever expect to gain control of SBIRS?

It’s possible to do better. We’ve tried to do that on SBIRS and the Advanced Extremely High Frequency communications satellites. We have added more testing to both of those programs.

We also added mission assurance work to the Wideband Gapfiller program, which we had hoped would take advantage of work done under the commercial Spaceway program that hasn’t taken place due to the fallout of the commercial satellite market. We’ve done the same thing on the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle program, which we also anticipated taking advantage of a strong commercial launch market.

Do you anticipate any updates to the space acquisition policy that the Air Force adopted in 2003?

We’ve been in contact with Congress on the potential to treat space a little differently. Right now satellites are purchased through the missile procurement account. I’d like to see the purchase of satellites be funded with research and development dollars.

Currently the first two satellites in a constellation are funded with research and development dollars, which allows the Air Force to spread the cost of the satellites over several years. When you get to the satellites that may follow, they are purchased with procurement dollars, which requires spending the money in a single year.

For example, the Advanced Extremely High Frequency program is a three-satellite constellation, so the first two satellites are paid for over the course of several years as we build up to their launch.

At the end of those two, we have to buy one satellite with procurement dollars. And even though that satellite will be built over several years, we have that whole cost in one year. That causes a major spike in the budget, even though there is nothing different on the third satellite than the first two. If we could pay for the satellites more incrementally, it would make it easier to manage our budgets.

The Air Force acknowledged recently that the cost of the Advanced Extremely High Frequency satellites would grow by about $843 million, but the Pentagon’s independent cost-estimating group put the expected increase at $2.5 billion. Why the big difference?

We have a review going on at the moment examining the differences between the two estimates that is expected to wrap up in April. That review will ensure [that] we properly mapped out the program and have enough money to execute it.

The Air Force review looked at the work done thus far by Lockheed Martin, the prime contractor on the satellites, and they have stayed close to the cost and schedule projections. The Pentagon’s Cost Analysis Improvement Group, however, uses an estimating method that looks at historical performance, and looks at factors like weight to estimate the likely cost of the satellites.

So we want the Cost Analysis Improvement Group to help us look at how we laid out the program and the amount of money we assigned to each task, and tell us where we’re short.

Why should Congress fund a Space Radar demonstration mission when the Air Force says it will not have good cost estimates for the operational constellation until early next decade?

One of the principal reasons for doing the small-scale satellite demonstration in 2008 is to validate a lot of the key concepts on how to manufacture things like the radar payload and the spacecraft tiles. We also want to work on the concept of operations for using the satellites and disseminating the data before getting totally immersed in the purchase of a full constellation.

That is the whole idea behind the revised acquisition strategy for the program. We won’t begin the purchase of the constellation until we can assure Congress we’re ready.

When might you pick a prime contractor for the Space Radar demonstration?

We hope to have that nailed down before the end of the summer. That choice will not be tied to the decision on who will build the operational constellation.

What can you do to reduce the technology-development risk on the laser-linked Transformational Satellite (T-Sat) Communications program?

If necessary, we could scale back the capability of the satellites and still provide a major boost in bandwidth over our current and planned communications constellations.

Another important capability with T-Sat is the ability for troops to communicate while they are on the move, which is critically important for the Army. A big antenna on the satellites means that troops on the ground can use a smaller antenna. If we had to, we could shrink the size of the spacecraft antenna and increase the size of the antennas used on the ground.

The Air Force has delayed the target launch date for the first GPS 3 satellite several times. Is there a point coming up where you need to lock that down, or can you continue buying modified GPS 2F satellites for the foreseeable future?

We’re looking at that right now. We’re looking at what you can add to GPS 2 versus going to GPS 3.

But there is a point when you need to have GPS 3. The key thing for GPS 3 is the spot beam that can boost the signal power over particular theaters, and improved timing integrity. We believe that 2013 is an appropriate time to field that capability.