COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — The chief architect of the U.S. Air Force’s back-to-basics approach to space acquisition believes the service has found a solid balance between minimizing risk and encouraging technical innovation in its satellite production programs.

Air Force Undersecretary Ron Sega said in an April 11 interview at the National Space Symposium here that the new strategy has reduced the chances that development efforts like the Transformational Satellite (T-Sat) Communications System and GPS 3 navigation satellites will run into the same problems that have plagued other space acquisition programs. At the same time, the Air Force is not sacrificing the advanced capabilities these new programs are intended to make available, he said.

The T-Sat system, which along with GPS 3 has been held out as a model for Sega’s approach, is designed to vastly increase the amount of bandwidth available to U.S. forces through the use of Internet routers and laser-optical satellite crosslinks. Under a program plan adopted last year, these capabilities will be watered down substantially on the first two T-Sat satellites.

During an April 19 hearing, members of the Senate Armed Services strategic forces subcommittee said that while they are not expecting future perfection from the Air Force, they have seen signs of progress.

“I believe we may be turning the corner of some of the worst problems,” said Sen. Jeff Sessions ( Ala.), the subcommittee’s ranking Republican. “My hope is that the new back-to-basics approach, in conjunction with new emphasis on operationally responsive space, will expedite delivery of capabilities to the war fighter in a cost-effective manner.”

Sega, who began talking about getting back to basics shortly after taking the job in August 2005, recently directed that all Air Force space programs, unless an exception is warranted, immediately adopt the approach.

In a memo signed March 14 and distributed to senior Pentagon officials, Sega also spelled out the criteria for the block acquisition approach that serves as a cornerstone of the back-to-basics philosophy.

By relying on proven technology for the initial versions of new satellites, while improving the capabilities on those that follow, this approach can reduce programmatic risk while speeding the delivery of new capabilities to military users, according to the memo.

New programs must be accompanied by plans that spell out how capabilities will be improved with successive satellites or blocks of satellites, and how the improvements will serve military needs , according to the memo. Financial constraints, technology maturity and user needs regarding each block must be identified from the beginning, the memo said.

Further, program risks must be identified at the beginning and re-examined on a regular basis, and cost estimates must be based on an 80 percent confidence level, the memo said.

During the interview, Sega said getting back to basics also entails dropping some of the acquisition reforms, based largely on commercial practices, that were adopted during the 1990s and have been tagged as a major cause of problems on military satellite programs. Closer program oversight, in the form of more Air Force managers assigned to contractor facilities, also is part of the equation, he said.

Sega cited the long-troubled Space Based Infrared System (SBIRS) missile warning program as an example of one that was hurt by acquisition reform-era practices, such as cutting corners during the early design phase of the satellites. Sega said he reviewed SBIRS March 29 along with Pentagon acquisition czar Kenneth Krieg and was pleased with its progress, but warned that the program’s legacy may yet come back to haunt it.

Indeed, Cristina Chaplain, director of acquisition and sourcing management at the Government Accountability Office, warned the Senate panel in prepared testimony that the SBIRS program has missed cost and schedule targets set in a 2005 restructuring and is burning through its cash reserves more quickly than anticipated.

Chaplain said during the hearing that the back-to-basics approach has helped programs like the Wideband Global SatCom and Advanced Extremely High Frequency satellite communications systems overcome “the bulk of their technical problems.” She also credited Sega’s approach with putting T-Sat on a trajectory for success.

But Chaplain also said she was concerned that Air Force’s efforts to right its space acquisition ship could be hampered by a lack of skilled space professionals . She said T-Sat program officials had told her that they were experiencing high personnel turnover, and could lose key technical employees in the next year or so.

Meanwhile, Sega said another aspect of getting back to basics is doing more space-based experimentation, which will enable the Air Force to retire risks on new technologies before incorporating them into operational payloads.

Sega hailed the first flight this past March of the Air Force’s Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle Secondary Payload Adapter Ring and said he would like to increase the launch opportunities for small, experimental payloads, most of which are stranded on the ground because of a lack of launch funding.

Such opportunities could come via more flights of the payload adapter ring, or increased use of small rockets like the Minotaur, which is based in part on excess strategic missile assets.