Shelton: Now is the Time To Ponder New Space Architectures

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COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — The U.S. Air Force is likely to face increasingly austere budgets in the years ahead, and with a steady set of mission requirements, it must plan future space missions differently, the commander of Air Force Space Command said April 12.

Though the Air Force will be recapitalizing its existing satellite fleets for the next decade or longer, now is the time to plan for the mix of capabilities the military needs beyond then, Gen. William Shelton said at the National Space Symposium here.

“I would submit … that the die is cast for the next several years, maybe the next 10 to 15 years, just because of long development timelines,” Shelton said. “But that gives us an opportunity right now to start turning this ship, and I’ll tell you, turning this big ship is hard.”

The Air Force is responsible for providing the military with many space capabilities, including missile warning, nuclear command and control, weather, protected communications, and position, navigation and timing. Each of these capabilities has become absolutely essential to warfighting, and the service will continue to be tasked with providing all of them for the foreseeable future, Shelton said.

“Our dependence [on space] has never been higher,” he said. “In fact, it’s integrated into how we fight wars today so deeply that it’s hard to imagine taking space out of the |equation.”

But the Air Force for the last decade or more has struggled to develop new satellite systems to perform many of these missions. Cost overruns and schedule slips have affected virtually every new development program. Increasing launch costs are stretching the Air Force’s space budget thinner still. And managing the space environment has become increasingly difficult as the most valuable orbits are now crowded with satellites and debris, and adversaries can threaten space systems from the ground or space, Shelton said.

In the immediate future, the Air Force must concentrate on delivering space systems on time and on budget, Shelton said. It will do this in most cases by building spacecraft that feature “just good enough capabilities rather than the state of the art,” he said.

In the longer term, there are many intriguing new possibilities for satellite architectures, Shelton said. The Air Force currently plans and builds its space systems in a way that is not fault tolerant, and many of these new options would help the service become less vulnerable to failures, he said. Shelton called on industry and academia to put forth their best ideas for doing space differently.

“I think we’ve got to think about new ways that we’re going to bring about our constellations in the future and how we can produce higher resiliency with those constellations,” he said. “Do we need to think about different orbital regimes? Inherently it just seems like higher altitudes would be the right way to go, but is that the right way to go? Do we need to disaggregate our capabilities on satellites so that we aren’t building such lucrative targets, so to speak, or even a technical difficulty takes out such a lot of capability? What about hosting payloads? What about commercial partnerships, commercial options? What about allied capabilities, international capabilities as well?”

All of these options will have to be sorted through and implemented within the context of a U.S. defense budget that will no longer see the high rates of growth it has seen over the past decade, Shelton said.

“Our budget will at best — at best — be flat,” he said. “And there are some draconian projections out there that would have our budget turning down very steeply. How much of that share will come to the space business? I don’t think we know. But I think it’s safe to assume that it’s going to be a challenging time for us.”