The last decade of investment in research, development and operations has yielded important space-based mission capabilities that differentiate the United States and its allies in the execution of our national security objectives. This affirmation of the operational utility of our new space-based capability is important. Accomplishment of these difficult tasks reaffirms that the fruits of our labor and our dedication to a strong national security space program are paying off. Today’s global military and intelligence operational demands require timely intelligence, reconnaissance, warning and communications to maximize the effectiveness and efficiency of the force. The postwar period’s planned smaller and more lethal military force is required to be responsive and agile across a complex set of global demands. The military’s global insight depends on effective use of space capabilities.

Recent satellite deployments provide impressive new capabilities when judged separately and are even more impressive when judged in aggregate. These satellites provide more than an order of magnitude improvement in capability over the systems they replace. Mobile and hardened communication upgrades provide breadth, depth and versatility. The Wideband Global Satcom system Block 2, Mobile User Objective System and Advanced Extremely High Frequency deployments provide mission critical communication capabilities beyond what is commercially available. Our forces demand seamless access to simultaneous voice, video and data connectivity, leveraging mobile and secure communications technology, to meet their mission needs.

Additionally, Overhead Persistent Infrared capabilities have improved with the Space Based Infrared System (SBIRS) in both geostationary and highly elliptical orbits with substantially improved sensor sensitivity and flexibility to perform missile warning, missile defense, technical intelligence and battle space awareness. The SBIRS GEO-1 sensors are detecting targets 25 percent dimmer with a 60 percent improved intensity measurement. The sensor pointing accuracy is nine times more precise than required. The National Geospatial Intelligence Agency, which serves as the mission manager for Overhead Persistent Infrared, recognizes the significance of this performance to expand technical intelligence-gathering capabilities and bolster situational awareness for warfighters on the battlefield. This is in addition to the enhanced capability to detect and react to missile launches around the globe. Users across the national and military communities are networking, collaborating and combining systems and sensors in exciting ways to better understand adversary capabilities and intent. As these improved capabilities are further moved into operation, we will come to appreciate the operational significance and beneficial intelligence of the new systems.

Now as we bask in the aura of these mission successes, we must remember that launching and operating satellites has never been easy. It is all about application of expertise with appropriate attention to detail. Given the substantial effort and expense to these missions, there is an imperative to ensure that our collective experience is best leveraged to improve tradecraft and mission performance and not to have to relearn any mistakes. Industrial-base capabilities must now be carefully managed as we shift programs from invention and design to production. Without a keen eye and steady management hand, decades of experience and specialized capabilities and facilities can disappear quickly and, as has been demonstrated in the past, will be difficult and expensive to regain. Losing key skills that are required for research, development and operation of space-based capabilities that are now raising the performance expectation bar is a surprise that we cannot tolerate.

The Office of the Secretary of Defense Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation (CAPE) organization over the last few years has collected and analyzed an extensive amount of data that, when summarized, reaffirms the character of the learning that occurs on complex development programs — cost and performance variances can be reduced by program efficiencies that begin with managed production and capability evolution within a predictable budget environment. Combine this approach with comprehensive, empowered system engineering and mission-focused research and development, and our country will have the opportunity to produce satellites while inserting the appropriate innovations to gain both mission performance and efficiencies in this austere budget environment.

Given our success with space hardware and software, it is now time to shift our contracting to be more output-based and less process-bound. The U.S. Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center and National Reconnaissance Office have recently demonstrated government-innovative contracting approaches to deliver a turnkey satellite and ground system efficiently into operations. This contracting approach demonstrated excellent cost and schedule performance by better aligning government and contractor incentives. We should wholeheartedly embrace this approach because it can be especially significant when applied on production programs. In effect we can increasingly achieve a convergence toward commercial best practice.

Six decades ago, space technology was in its infancy with engineers actively engaged in learning how to harness the power of rocket boosters and payloads. Today, space and ground systems provide capabilities that are deeply ingrained into our operations, giving us impressive global reach and understanding. Balancing risk and schedule with modern designs and manufacturing, properly incentivized contracts with lean oversight, and reduced but stable budgets to allow efficient planning can provide substantial opportunity to reduce cost with acceptable risk and ensure critical support to both military and national users alike. High mission assurance provided by proven, long-lived satellites launched in a timely manner on reliable, readily available boosters can be the cost/performance sweet spot.

This is our time to show that the sum of the sensing and communication capabilities can provide a greater whole in ensuring mission success. The speed of global information within a seamless framework provides the U.S. a worldwide strategic advantage.


Jeffrey K. Harris was director of the National Reconnaissance Office and assistant secretary of the Air Force for space from 1994 to 1996 and held senior executive leadership positions at Lockheed Martin and Space Imaging. He is currently chief executive of JKH Consulting in Maryland.