U.S. Air Force Gen. Robert Kehler


Change is in the air at the U.S. Defense Department, and like other parts of the military, Air Force Space Command is going to have to do more with less while keeping up with a world much different that it was a decade ago.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates announced April 6 sweeping changes to Pentagon acquisition programs, including the cancellation of the Transformational Satellite program, or T-Sat, which was for years assumed to be the future of U.S. military satellite communications. With T-Sat gone, Space Command, which is responsible for designing, procuring and operating U.S. military space systems, will continue on with the current generations of communications satellites and must decide if and how these platforms can be upgraded to meet the military’s future needs.

Air Force Gen. Robert Kehler, commander of Space Command, continues to wrestle with problematic space acquisition programs that date back to the 1990s, including the Space Based Infrared System (SBIRS) missile warning system. He is cautiously optimistic, however, that the Air Force, as a result of new practices, has taken a turn for the better in space acquisition and this will manifest itself on newer programs like GPS 3.

believes the way ahead for hedging against gaps in U.S. space capabilities is in concepts being developed by the Pentagon’s Operationally Responsive Space (ORS) office, and that programs under way now will prove the concepts viable for the military. ORS refers to the ability to field space capabilities relatively quickly in response to emerging needs.

Meanwhile, with more international actors in space and more junk floating around in orbit, the task of protecting U.S. space assets – always a top priority for Space Command – has grown far more complicated. The recent destruction of an active Iridium communications satellite in a collision with a spent Russian satellite, for example, demonstrated that the threat posed by orbital debris is both real and growing.

Exactly how Space Command should accomplish the satellite protection mission was the subject of a study the command completed last year. Kehler said while the recommendations of the study are classified, the key will be improving space situational awareness. An important element of that will be better observation of the geosynchronous-orbit belt using the Space Based Space Surveillance system Block 10 satellite, which is slated to launch in July.

In addition to his space duties, Kehler is in the midst of an overhaul of Space Command that includes taking responsibility for the cyberspace protection mission in the Air Force and moving the ICBM mission to the new Air Force Global Strike Command. The transition involves moving 10,000 personnel at various sites to the new command while taking on some 7,000 personnel for the cyberspace mission. He emphasized that Space Command will not relinquish responsibility for maintaining the U.S. ICBM force until the new Global Strike Command is fully ready to take over.

spoke recently with Space News Editor Warren Ferster and staff writer Turner Brinton.

Is there a requirement for a second Space Based Space Surveillance system satellite?

There is a requirement for this capability on orbit, and with the fairly short lifetime of the first satellite, there is certainly a requirement for a follow-on satellite. Whether there is a requirement for one or two more on orbit is what we are sorting our way through right now. So we’re doing the planning right now to make sure we’ve got the discipline to ensure requirements won’t need to be adjusted and that we aren’t out there trying to hang something else on the next block for which there is not a hard, validated requirement. Those requirements will be based in part on the on-orbit performance of the first satellite, so we are very anxious to get that one on orbit.

Do you have any concerns about flying such an important satellite on a Minotaur 4 vehicle in a configuration that has not flown before?

I do have concerns, but I will tell you by the time we get to launch day, I won’t. We have put into this launch virtually the same mission assurance process we are using on the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle program, which has proven to be very successful with the other class of launch vehicles. So we recognize this is an issue being the first time, and we recognize this is a very important satellite, so that is causing us to do some extraordinary things for mission assurance. By the time we get to t-minus zero, I won’t have any concerns about this launch vehicle.

How do you assess the Pentagon’s progress to date in proving the viability of ORS?

I think the pathway we are on right now with ORS-Sat-1 will teach us a lot about what we can do in the future. That was begun on a very aggressive timeline, and it was structured such that we have off-ramps at certain programmatic points where we will assess whether or not this is worth more investment. At the same time, I would also like to put more money into the foundation of ORS. We are on our way forward to go to a common ground station for smaller satellites, and I think we have a lot of small launch vehicle potential here if we can drive the cost down on those. And we are making great progress in the labs with the plug-and-play busses and technologies that go with that. I think that’s less of a science project now and more of an engineering project.

What is the biggest hurdle to making the ORS concept work?

The issue for me is sensors – figuring out if we can get sensors developed that will support this kind of strategy as it goes forward. So we’re working with the ORS office here to make sure we have an investment strategy that gets us to places sooner. We just had a meeting with the ORS office to see if we can adjust that. That’s our hedging strategy for the future, and if we plan it correctly, we are fulfilling what the combatant commanders are asking us for, because they aren’t telling us how to do it, the combatant commanders are just saying don’t leave me hanging out here if you have a launch failure.

How are the recommendations of your space protection study being implemented?

We sent a strategy to Congress last summer with a couple of key features. They involve improving our foundational intelligence and improving space situational awareness. It also put us on a pathway where we now have a group of people in place who come to work every day with the job of performing the engineering assessments of the intelligence information that we get. These people have begun to report back to myself and [outgoing] National Reconnaissance Office Director Scott Large with the requirements we will need to address these kinds of vulnerabilities and protection concerns.

How confident are you that the SBIRS geosynchronous satellites will be delivered on the current schedule and perform as advertised once on orbit?

My confidence that they will get delivered on the current schedule is medium to high, and the next couple of months will be critical to that assessment as we work our way through software issues. That’s not a surprise to me though, because they planned to work through it in phases, and the phases so far have been successful. I have very high confidence they will operate as advertised. I base that on the performance of the first two sensors in elliptical orbits, which are performing spectacularly well, and that is typically what we see with our aerospace industry. Whenever we have difficulty in getting to orbit, typically, once we get there the platforms perform spectacularly well.

If you are confident that the SBIRS satellites will work once on orbit, why did Air Force Gen. Kevin Chilton, commander of Strategic Command, push for buying a missile warning gap-filler satellite?

It isn’t about on-orbit performance; it is about getting to orbit. We have a long string now of operational successes in the launch business, but there is not 100 percent reliability in any of our vehicles. So Gen. Chilton asked us to look at a hedging strategy to determine how we would go forward here in the “what if” case. Typically, we have not conceptualized our programs that way, and he’s uncomfortable with that, and if I were in his shoes I would be uncomfortable with that as well.

This is about how we decide to manage risk. On some programs, we can probably take more risk than on others. The reason for that is obvious: in those cases we have more satellites coming down the pipe. For example, we don’t like to have a launch failure on GPS, but the system tolerates failures better than other systems with fewer satellites.

I think the way we address this in the future is with ORS, because I believe that an affordable hedge strategy for the future would have to be one that allows us to take advantage of some of the principles we are trying to demonstrate in ORS. So in my view, it is a national strategic capability. If we can get to plug-and-play busses, and if we can get to smaller sensors that are adaptable to changing needs, then I think we are getting ORS where it needs to be and that’s our hedging strategy for the future.