U.S. Air Force Lt. Gen. Larry James

Commander of 14th Air Force and Joint Functional Component Command for Space

Though the
United States
has been operating satellites for more than 50 years, U.S. Air Force Lt. Gen. Larry James believes the nation is still in its infancy of space operations and that efforts to modernize command and control capabilities will deliver measurable results to

James in December 2008 was tapped to succeed Lt. Gen. William Shelton as the commander of the 14th Air Force, responsible for launching and operating the nation’s military satellites and delivering space capabilities to
forces around the globe. James also supports U.S. Strategic Command in his role as commander of the Joint Functional Component Command for Space. Between the Joint Space Operations Center (JSPOC) at Vandenberg Air Force Base,
, and five space wings across the
United States
, the 14th Air Force comprises some 20,000 military, civilian and contractor personnel.

Traditionally, military satellite ground control systems have been customized to a particular type of satellite. The 14th Air Force has taken steps in recent years to merge these so-called stovepiped systems. For example, the Air Force implemented the Command and Control System Consolidated program several years ago with Integral Systems Inc. of Lanham, Md., as prime contractor to operate all current and future generations of military communications satellites. The program has reduced from 12 to three the number of airmen needed to operate a single Defense Satellite Communications System satellite, and the Air Force is hoping to do the same for other types of satellites as well.

Operating the Air Force’s Space Surveillance Network that keeps tabs on objects orbiting Earth is also among James’ responsibilities. To do this job more effectively in the future, the United States will need more and better sensors, both in space and on the ground, and would benefit from collaborating more with other nations, James said. The Air Force has a number of new elements being developed for this mission, including the first Space Based Space Surveillance system satellite that will launch soon and an upgraded Space Fence radar system that will be expanded to at least one site overseas. Fusing all of this data together to create useful information is another major undertaking, and the service is in the early stages of developing the JSPOC Mission System to do that.

James spoke recently with Space News staff writer Turner Brinton.

What in your opinion are the warfighters‘ most pressing needs in terms of space-based capabilities?

Broadly speaking, persistent surveillance is absolutely critical to our operations. So doing that better across the spectrum, with some combination of airborne and space-based systems, is important. Another area is satellite communications. The need for bandwidth is insatiable. We are continuing to upgrade our military satcom systems with the Wideband Global Satcom and Advanced Extremely High Frequency constellations, and those will provide tremendous gains in that arena. Commercial is also valued and will continue to play a role.

Space situational awareness is also a key area we must improve. Knowing what is going on in space is not only important from a strategic perspective, but from the warfighters‘ perspective as well, because they need to know what the adversary has and what they’re doing. That goes beyond tracking objects; it goes to knowing what a particular system is capable of and what it’s doing – that whole gamut of information. Then there is the ability to reconstitute and augment satellite systems that the Pentagon’s Operationally Responsive Space (ORS) Office is working on. I think the warfighter definitely wants to know that if they have a need, they have a place to call to get that quickly. We’re still trying to understand what can we build, what can we have on the shelf, and how these things will be employed, but I think there’s a lot of potential utility there.

What is your assessment of the progress the ORS Office has made so far?

I think like any new program it doesn’t come easily or quickly at the onset because you’re trying to figure so many things out. I think that’s where we are with ORS. But in a year or two we’re going to see a fair amount of things on orbit that we will be able to experiment with and provide direct data to the warfighter and understand if this fills a need that is out there or one that we’ve lost. And once they are done experimenting, a lot of those things may be turned over to the 14th Air Force to operate and provide ongoing capability for as long as those systems last.

What are your top priorities in space situational awareness, and how could you better perform that mission?

Our top priority is continuing to do what we’re doing today, which is maintain a space catalog and making sure we assess any potential conjunction involving U.S. government payloads; so that’s job one. As we look to the near-term future, with the collision of the Iridium satellite with the Russian Cosmos satellite, we are looking to do some improvements in conjunction assessment and additional processing, and Air Force Space Command has provided for some of those manpower increases in the near term.

As we look to the long term, certainly we need more and better sensors in order to better catalog all of the objects in space. We’re going to be launching the Space Based Space Surveillance system satellite soon, and that will give us the important on-orbit capability to look at the geostationary belt. We’re also looking to harness other sensors that aren’t necessarily in the Space Surveillance Network and bring that data into the JSPOC. And we will build a new Space Fence in the out years.

How will you fuse all of that space situational awareness data?

We will do that with what we call the JSPOC Mission System, which is really the program moving forward that will enhance not just our space situational awareness capabilities but our command and control as well. We’re moving forward with a road map for that program, and we have a full team from Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center and Electronic Systems Center working together to bring that forward. But there’s a lot of work to do. Ultimately we want to have a user-defined operational picture where we can go in and pull whatever we want from the database, whether it’s in theater or in the JSPOC. Developing the algorithms to create the right displays are some of the kinds of things we need to work through right now.

Is the Air Force moving away from separate, proprietary satellite ground systems?

It’s one of the things we’re working hard on, especially out at the 50th Space Wing where we fly hosted payloads. We’ve actually made a lot of progress in the area. If you look at military satcom command and control, we’ve gone to one common system. So we’ve already made a few big steps that frankly people often don’t hear about. Our vision is a consolidated operations center where we fly pretty much every military payload from one operations center.

How closely do you work with the intelligence community, and can their requirements be satisfied with the same systems used by warfighters?

Certainly I think we’re very closely linked today. We have good collaboration right now with the National Reconnaissance Office, as they serve as the backup for JSPOC and vice-versa. They’re on my updates three times a week, and we have a representative from that office here that I reach out every day if I need to understand what capabilities are they bringing to the fight, what problems are they having with their systems, etc. I brief those issues to the commander of U.S. Strategic Command. So in terms of information sharing and knowing what each other’s systems are doing, I think we’re very well integrated today, and we’ve come a long way in that arena.

As you look at warfighter requirements and national intelligence requirements, those things are just going to have to sort themselves out. I don’t think you can make a blanket statement that says we will continue to have one satellite that meets all those needs. We need to look at the requirements and determine how best to support those.