SAN FRANCISCO — The U.S. Air Force plans to acquire new hardware and software designed to improve its ability to safeguard satellites and enhance command and control for Defense Department space operations in a three-step process scheduled to begin this spring.

The Air Force plans to base the first phase of its long-awaited effort to modernize the Joint Space Operations Center (JSPOC) located at Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., on a prototype system developed by the Air Force Research Laboratory. That prototype, known as the JSPOC Mission System (JMS) Capability Package 0, includes software designed to help the JSPOC staff analyze vast quantities of data drawn from sensors and intelligence networks. The Air Force is scheduled to complete installation this summer of JMS Capability Package 0, which will give JSPOC personnel the ability to customize their view of objects in space. JSPOC personnel will continue to rely on legacy JSPOC hardware but will have “a better capability to visualize information and to move information around” on monitors, said Lt. Gen. Ellen Pawlikowski, Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center (SMC) commander.

By the fall of 2014, the Air Force plans to complete the second phase of JMS, the JSPOC modernization program. During that phase, the JSPOC staff will move operations off the legacy systems currently used to monitor the space environment. The legacy systems will be replaced by a combination of government off-the-shelf and commercial off-the-shelf technologies, Pawlikowski said. The Air Force plans to release a request for proposals this spring or early summer for systems it plans to acquire during the second phase of the JMS program, she added.

In 2015, the Air Force plans to begin rolling out the third phase of the JMS program, which is designed to “leverage the innovation of the industry in what some people envision is more of the app mode to maturing JMS,” Pawlikowski said. The idea is to adopt a service-oriented architecture model that will allow the Air Force to pick and choose among various software elements and combine them to improve the ability of JSPOC operators to merge data from various sensors. Multiple vendors are expected to participate in the third phase of the program, Pawlikowski said.

The Air Force has struggled for years to upgrade its space command-and-control network, which uses data from a worldwide network of ground-based radars and optical sensors to give JSPOC personnel a comprehensive view of the increasingly congested space environment. The JSPOC staff also relies on many different data processing and communication systems to analyze data acquired and warn other government and commercial organizations of potential problems, ranging from satellite collisions to solar flares.

When the Air Force unveiled plans for the JMS program in 2009, service officials planned to complete a comprehensive effort to modernize JSPOC by 2016. In May 2011, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) issued a report questioning the Air Force’s approach to JMS and its plan to “deliver all capabilities in a single, large increment, versus smaller and more manageable increments.” At the same time, GAO emphasized the importance of the modernization program, saying JSPOC featured “antiquated hardware and software that is becoming unsupportable, is fragmented across disparate systems, is not well-integrated, and is not capable of processing the increased amount of data being delivered by current and … future Space Situational Awareness sensor systems.” The GAO detailed those findings in the report “Development and Oversight Challenges in Delivering Improved Space Situational Awareness Capabilities.”

Now that the Air Force has adopted an incremental approach to upgrading JSPOC, service officials do not plan to devote as much funding to the JMS program in 2013 as they did in February 2011 when they submitted their 2012 budget plan to Congress. The Air Force is asking Congress for authority to move $45 million of the $100 million previously budgeted for the effort in 2013 to other program, according to the budget blueprint the service sent to Congress earlier this year. That budget document also reveals that the legacy system JSPOC currently relies upon, Space Defense Operations Center, was designed to operate only through 2002.

In May 2011, the Air Force transferred responsibility for managing the JMS program from the Air Force Electronic Systems Center at Hanscom Air Force Base, Mass., to SMC. On Dec. 19, Frank Kendall, the acting defense undersecretary for acquisition, signed a memorandum that gave SMC approval for its strategy to modernize JSPOC by focusing on “rapid, incremental deliveries to achieve an accelerated migration off of legacy systems,” according to the Air Force budget request.

Debra Werner is a correspondent for SpaceNews based in San Francisco. Debra earned a bachelor’s degree in communications from the University of California, Berkeley, and a master’s degree in Journalism from Northwestern University. She...