Lt. Gen. John “Tom” Sheridan
Commander, Air Force Space and
Lt. Gen. John “Tom” Sheridan took on a heavy workload in May when he assumed command of the Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center (SMC) in . His lengthy list of priorities includes overseeing the transition to operational status of recently launched assets like the Wideband Global Satcom system and the highly elliptical orbiting payloads for the Space Based Infrared System and gearing up to award the prime contract for the Transformational Satellite (T-Sat) communications system later this year.
And that is just for starters.
Other activities that fall under ‘s purview include the dedicated satellites for the Space Based Infrared System program, GPS, ICBM programs, the Defense Meteorological Satellite Program, the space superiority system programs and other emerging transformational space programs. Overall, he manages the research, design, development, acquisition and operation of space and missile systems, launch services and command and control. It is a task that comes with a $12 billion annual budget and a work force of more than 6,500 employees nationwide. And while is quick to shower praise on his work force, he notes they are straining to accomplish all of the work expected of them.
talked about his agenda with Space News correspondent Jeremy Singer.
Pentagon officials in the past have described space acquisition as broken – is this still the case?
I don’t think it’s broken. If we follow through with the focus on systems engineering and mission assurance and right-sized government teams, and nail down the requirements up front with the right financial and personnel resources, it will go a long way toward maintaining recent success.
Do you have enough manpower at SMC to accomplish the stronger government oversight role that comes with the back-to-basics acquisition approach?
Do we have enough people at SMC to do all that we’re asked to do? We’re stretched. No doubt about it. We have a great team, and are using guard and reserve and active duty folks from other services working with us on programs like GPS and satellite communications to make sure that their requirements are incorporated, but we have holes.
A top level investigation says that we probably don’t have enough software experts or systems engineering experts on staff because of the tight budgets across the board in the Air Force. We’re probably low on mid-level officers the people with two or three assignments so they come here with in- depth experience.
How do we get around that? We’ve set up training and education programs that include people getting masters degrees. We’ve sent people to school to build software expertise.
Is there any relief on the way?
We’re working all those areas. There is no one answer; it will take a combination of things. There are ceilings with the levels of staff that we can hire from federally funded research and development centers, and we have to deal with that by allocating talent in the best way we can.
There have been recent announcements that the Air Force will stop the lieutenant reduction and separation programs from the past couple of years. Those things should help us avoid having to reduce the force from the size we currently have.
We have more ability to address our personnel challenges on the civilian side by doing things like bringing back retiring military personnel in civilian positions.
Has there been any recent progress in getting the hiring ceiling raised for personnel from federally funded research and development centers?
Not recently, though there has been some [progress] in the past couple of years. It’s something to keep working for in the near future.
We talk all the time with the Air Force staff at the Pentagon, as well as the staff in the Office of the Secretary of Defense, about the ceilings, and where and why we need relief, so they can set up a good dialog with Congress.
Have you made a decision yet on whether to develop a true next generation constellation to follow the Space Based Space Surveillance system Pathfinder spacecraft, or whether you will buy copies of the Pathfinder from Boeing?
There’s been no decision yet. It won’t be long, but probably not before the end of this year.
We’re looking at options to see how it will fit into the space situational awareness architecture.
The space component has specific roles, and the ground has specific roles. Brig. Gen. John Hyten, the director of requirements at Air Force Space Command headquarters, and his team are still determining the requirements that we want to have from the Space Based Space Surveillance system constellation of satellites.
Do you still expect to launch the first dedicated Space Based Infrared System satellite in 2009?
I expect it to be ready to launch around December 2009. We will begin acoustic testing with it in the next few weeks, and are on track with the flight software revisions.
The recent news with the payloads [on other spacecraft] in highly elliptical orbit has been positive, and it looks like the first payload will be ready to start operational readiness reviews shortly.
What are you doing to develop improvements for the ground systems associated with space situational awareness?
A lot of this is taking place as part of the Integrated Space Situational Awareness program. It’s really going in the right direction. It involves spiral development, so there are pieces of new capabilities that the users at the at Vandenberg Air Force Base, , get every six months or so.
Some of the new capabilities include demonstrations on network centric data sharing that examine how data will be handled and passed around, prototype capabilities for monitoring the location and status of satellites, and capabilities to better predict when satellites may closely approach each other so that assets are kept safe.
Do you expect to gain more improvements in the space situational awareness capability through work on the ground rather than in space?
Yes, and we can make those improvements faster by taking stock of what’s on the ground, and putting projects in place to make best use of the assets we have. It takes a long time to develop, build, test and launch a new space program.
That said, we will learn a lot from the Space Based Space Surveillance system Pathfinder, and as we work on the overall space surveillance architecture, figure out the best requirements for the space piece versus the ground. There are some things that can be better accomplished from orbit, and we want to allocate those to the follow-on Space Based Space Surveillance system satellites and other space systems.