WASHINGTON — In the budget request that was submitted to Congress last week, the U.S. Air Force made investment decisions that just a few years ago would have been jaw-dropping.

A $7 billion surveillance aircraft program is being jettisoned in favor of an information network that connects sensors from across the battlefield and in outer space. And billion-dollar satellites known to be engineering marvels are being replaced by simpler, less costly platforms.

These are tradeoffs that the Pentagon typically would avoid because they require stepping into unfamiliar territory. But the changes are necessary for the military to ensure air and space supremacy in the future, Air Force leaders said. The budget proposal would take money from hardware and shift it to software. And it would disrupt traditional satellite procurements in favor of faster, more commercial-like approaches to building space systems.

“This budget changes the way in which we intend to execute battle management command and control,” Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson said on Friday at a Mitchell Institute event on Capitol Hill.

Rival powers like Russia and China are developing high-speed missiles, advanced ground and space-based surveillance technologies that make Air Force weapon systems  — like the airliner-size JSTARS radar surveillance aircraft — easy targets in a conflict.

Up until last year, said Wilson, the Air Force had a plan to build a new JSTARS. “It would have been the same concept with better technology,” she said. But a visit in August to a war command center in the Middle East was a wakeup call. Wilson and Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein saw that commanders there were piping in data from dozens of different sensor systems to get a complete picture of the battlefield.

Then came an assessment from Air Combat Command that, in a “China or European scenario, JSTARS would not survive,” Wilson said.

The proposed alternative is an “advanced battle management system” — an information network that connects sensors from manned and unmanned aircraft, satellites, ships at sea and ground troops. “In a contested environment, an integrated air, space, ground network is more resilient than a single point,” Wilson said.

The concept is one the Air Force believes will allow the United States to prevail on future conflicts. But the plan could be politically harder to sell, at least when compared to a shiny new airplane.

“We have proposed it to the Congress,” said Wilson. “It’s hard to visualize. It’s a lot easier to explain one platform than to explain multiple things that would have to happen.”

In another departure from the norm, the Air Force would not hire a prime contractor to integrate the sensors. “That is not our intention,” Wilson said.

Changes in satellite programs

In its budget request for fiscal year 2019, the Air Force also shifted gears in the procurement of new satellites. One of its largest and costliest constellations is the space-based infrared system, or SBIRS, used to monitor missile launches around the world. The Air Force will stop buying new SBIRS vehicles after the sixth one is completed and instead will shift to a new system of less expensive satellites equipped with “proven sensors,” said Wilson.

Large satellites like SBIRS are vulnerable to electronic and kinetic attacks, officials have warned. Smaller spacecraft would be more resilient, said Wilson. “We’ll keep it simple, lighter.” The new satellites would have more room for fuel so they could move to a different orbit or deploy countermeasures if attacked.

“There is nothing revolutionary about this,” she said. Whereas in past satellite programs, the Air Force would spend years doing “analysis of alternatives,” that will not happen in the SBIRS replacement program, said Wilson. “We know what we need. It’s not complicated.”

In space, especially, we have to “move quickly,” said Wilson. The Pentagon’s 2019 budget request includes $9.3 billion for space systems. “A lot of the growth is going into the development and testing of new capabilities to be able to have defendable assets on orbit,” she said.

But will the plan work?

Former Air Force executive in charge of acquisitions William LaPlante said the changes proposed in the budget are “wise moves.”

LaPlante is senior vice president and general manager of MITRE National Security Sector, a non-profit research firm that advises the Air Force.

With regard to satellites, the Air Force has hurt itself by making systems too complex and unnecessarily costly, LaPlante told SpaceNews. “You design a swiss army knife in some case when all you need is a plastic spoon,” he said. “The model has to change. You may have satellites that only last a year or two, do limited things. It’s a totally different acquisition mindset.”

The intelligence community has been moving in this direction for years, said LaPlante. Doing away with the analysis of alternatives “could be a very good thing depending on what happens.” In programs like SBIRS and the Advanced EHF classified communications constellation, the analysis of alternatives each took two or three years. “And we still ended up not making a decision,” said LaPlante. “A lot of people focus on the development cycle. But what we often forget is all the time we spend before we even do a request for proposals.”

On the decision to not replace JSTARS with another aircraft, LaPlante said, “The right move is to get away from the battlestar galactica.” But shifting from a traditional platform to an internet-of-things type network will be a challenge, he said. “DoD and its contractors are still probably 10 to 15 years behind modern commercial software developers.” If the goal is an advanced battle management system, the “challenge is going to be to execute the software architectures needed to do that. That’s the only caution I would raise.”

If the idea is to not use a prime contractor, the Air Force will have to play the integrator role. “I’ll be honest, the record of the government being an integrator is not great. I certainly endorse the concept of not having a contractor integrator. But the devil is going to be in the details.”

A modern battle-management system is a worthy goal, said LaPlante. “But you have to have a strong team of scientists, engineers, cost estimators, data analysts who can do pull the system together.”

Sandra Erwin writes about military space programs, policy, technology and the industry that supports this sector. She has covered the military, the Pentagon, Congress and the defense industry for nearly two decades as editor of NDIA’s National Defense...