The challenges that face Lt. Gen. Ellen Pawlikowski, who took the helm at the Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center (SMC) in June, are significantly different from those of her predecessors. Since 2007, the Air Force has completed development, construction and the initial launch of the Wideband Global Satcom (WGS) communications system, Space Based Infrared System (SBIRS) geostationary missile warning system and Advanced Extremely High Frequency (AEHF) secure communications system. Now, instead of focusing primarily on developing new, state-of-the-art spacecraft, Pawlikowski and SMC’s 5,000 employees are seeking ways to reduce the cost of building and flying the remaining satellites in those constellations.

Pawlikowski, the first female SMC commander, also is leading efforts to identify cost-effective ways to augment space-based capabilities, such as flying military sensors on commercial spacecraft and developing smaller, less-expensive satellites.

Before taking over SMC, Pawlikowski commanded the Air Force Research Laboratory at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio, and served as the deputy director of the National Reconnaissance Office and deputy SMC commander.

Pawlikowski spoke recently with Space News correspondent Debra Werner.


What is your strategy for buying Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) boosters?

We will look at quantity and price discounts much like you would at the grocery store. And we are going to look at the prices we get from prime contractor United Launch Alliance (ULA) and compare those with independent estimates.


Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said the Air Force shouldn’t rely on ULA’s cost data. What do you think?

We will base our decision on certified cost and pricing data from ULA and independent estimates we have developed on the cost of the main booster engine. Then, as we get the proposal from ULA, we will work closely with the Defense Contract Management Agency and Defense Contract Audit Agency to evaluate them. We will have a lot of good independent data on which to make our assessment.


How is the Air Force planning to develop the next-generation weather satellite system?

Our first focus is on making plans to fly two remaining Defense Meteorological Satellite Program spacecraft. Then, we will analyze requirements and possible strategies, not just requirements for a new satellite. We will look across the spectrum at weather data that we can obtain eventually from satellites being used for other missions. We will look at opportunities for hosting payloads on commercial satellites or other Defense Department satellites. We will look at potential opportunities for international cooperation in providing space capability. We will look at ways to establish a more resilient and robust constellation by potentially using multiple, smaller satellites equipped with a single sensor. We also will take advantage of the funding Congress gave us in the 2012 budget to do some risk reduction on new sensor technologies we might put on a new satellite as well as the ground architectures for those.


Why are you interested in smaller satellites?

We’ve learned over the years that if satellites are less complex, we can reduce development costs, the time it takes to build them and the cost per satellite. Future constellations may include a mixture of the larger, more mature satellites like AEHF and SBIRS with smaller, single-function satellites that feature mature technologies and lower costs. We also have to weigh the benefits of a few large satellites versus smaller satellites that may be more resilient.


Military satellite programs often are behind schedule and over budget. How is that problem being addressed?

Over the last several years, we’ve learned a lot of things. We need to have solid control of our requirements. We have to have regular engagement with our user community to understand where trades can be made in terms of affordability. Across the Air Force, we are identifying things that add extra program cost and risk. In addition, we are making sure that we have mature technologies, because the less mature the technology is, the more risk there is in schedules and budgets. That is one of the reasons we are doing technology risk reduction work in the weather satellite program.


How can you reduce the cost of satellites in production?

We have been engaged with our industry partners in seeking ways to drive down the cost of satellites. We are looking at reducing significantly the pace at which we try to introduce new capabilities. We are looking for smart ways to shrink production schedules. Anytime I can reduce the schedule, I have opportunities to reduce cost.


Often ground terminal programs lag behind the satellite deployments. How can that be fixed?

I agree that it has been a challenge. But in the case of AEHF and WGS we are doing pretty well. We will have 200 AEHF terminals fielded by September. That is 23 percent of the estimated terminal population. We will have an initial operational capability ahead of schedule. Today we have 2,900 wideband terminals capable of operations on the WGS constellation. In addition there are 600 terminals capable of using the WGS legacy X-band capability. In the next five years, we expect a total of 6,500 WGS terminals fielded.

There is still work to be done. My experience has been, once we actually get those satellites up there, there’s more interest in getting the terminals fielded.

AEHF is compatible with Milstar terminals and WGS is compatible with X-band terminals. That’s a smart strategy because trying to synchronize satellite and terminal programs is really hard. Military terminals are on airplanes, armored vehicles and ships. Which means we have to synchronize terminal upgrades with modifications to ships or airplanes and that, especially in a tight budget environment, tends to be a challenge. It’s a constant effort.


What are you learning from the Commercially Hosted Infrared Payload (CHIRP) launched in September?

We are very excited about the wide-field-of-view technology we have been testing and its potential to provide us a lower-cost but very capable approach to battle-space awareness and missile warning. We also learned the importance of having a technically mature payload prior to signing up for a commercial ride because the commercial satellite will not wait for you. We were very fortunate that we were afforded a couple of opportunities to catch a ride. The third major lesson was managing the information flow. We want to send the information that we are getting off the sensor into very secure networks. The rules that we have for being able to hook into that are different than the way the commercial business has structured their information flow. We had to work through that.


Are you planning to fly more hosted payloads?

I’ve stood up a hosted payload office to look at those lessons and opportunities for additional hosted payloads, such as weather sensors, satellite communications payloads and a follow-on to CHIRP with a little more maturity on that wide-field-of-view technology. We are even looking at flying space situational awareness sensors as hosted payloads, which could create a community-watch type of approach to space situational awareness.


How are budget pressures affecting SMC?

We have to be even better at making sure we are executing our programs in the most cost-effective way. Over the last seven years, SMC has been focused on designing, developing and launching first-of-a-kind satellites. Now, our focus is on building those satellites. We must maintain mission assurance at the high level, because one lost satellite is a huge cost. But, do I have to do the same degree of design testing on the fifth and sixth satellite in a series as I did on the first one, for example? It’s important for us to make sure we are spending the right amount of money to maintain mission assurance, but not a penny more.


What satellites do you plan to purchase this year?

We are negotiating with Boeing to put the 10th WGS on contract. We plan to have AEHF-5 and AEHF-6 on contract this summer. We will award contracts for GPS 3 vehicles five and six around the same time. We also are working with Lockheed Martin to get moving on the fifth and sixth SBIRS geostationary satellites. We expect to award a contract later in the year for long lead items and some engineering work dealing with parts obsolescence.


What do you think of the idea of launching two GPS 3 satellites on a single rocket?

We see this as an opportunity to save a significant amount of money and help us get capability on orbit when we need it. We have completed initial studies and determined it’s definitely feasible. It does require some engineering on the part of ULA for an adapter. We are working with Lockheed Martin to see what upfront engineering they would need to do on the GPS side.


How many SBIRS geostationary satellites will the Air Force buy?

Right now, we have six in our baseline. After that, it’s too early to tell. The Defense Department is conducting a study on the future. We have been looking at what different architectures might look like with potentially some augmentation of a SBIRS-like satellite, but I don’t think I can give you any projection beyond six at this point.

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...