U.S. Air Force Gen. William L. Shelton, Commander, Air Force Space Command

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The rollout of the new U.S. Defense Strategic Guidance Jan. 5 brought a tidbit of encouraging news to a space industry on edge over looming cutbacks in military spending: Space will continue to see investment because of its qualities as a force multiplier.

But that won’t diminish the challenges ahead for U.S. Air Force Gen. William Shelton, who manages and protects the Pentagon’s space activities.

Despite a stellar satellite-launching record in recent years, for example, the Air Force faces congressional pressure to reduce costs and bring competition to a market currently served by a single supplier. The service also was sent back to the drawing board on a new military weather satellite system and a major information-technology upgrade at the Joint Space Operations Center (JSPOC), the nerve center for the nation’s military space activities.

The JSPOC Mission System upgrade is critical to the Air Force’s ability to operate safely in an increasingly congested orbital environment.

Shelton spoke recently with Space News Editor Warren Ferster.

 

What can we expect for space in the Air Force’s forthcoming budget request for 2013?

I believe what the defense secretary and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs briefed are indications that there’s really a foundational level of space capability that needs to exist despite what you might do with the force structure. So as you see reductions in force structure, those enabling space capabilities still need to be there in number to provide the force the space support that’s needed. So I think you’re going to see space fare relatively well.

 

What are your biggest concerns about the space industrial base?

We are concerned about the propulsion industry for sure. Our engine designs are very old and while they work extremely well and reliably they’re expensive and getting more expensive as suppliers shrink. So we would love to see development of new main stages and upper stages that would be much more easily manufactured. As an example, to manufacture an RL10 engine, there are 8,000-plus person touch hours and that’s comparable to producing a hand-built Lamborghini. We are concerned about shrinking manufacturing sources in individual space parts as well. So we are trying to be a much more reliable procurer of capabilities so that we can provide a steady base of business for our prime manufacturers. In rockets, for example, we’re doing a block buy for the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle program, which will give a much more reliable business plan for United Launch Alliance (ULA) and its suppliers. In satellite manufacturing we are trying to do block buys of satellites so that we can both keep a steady procurement cost and have a reliable business base that will allow them to give their suppliers a reliable business plan as well.

 

Is developing a new engine realistic in this budgetary environment?

We’re certainly going to try. We have some thoughts on the drawing board right now about maybe a development effort inside the government. We’ve got some other development efforts that are going on in commercial industry. As you know there are several manufacturers out there building their own rocket engines, so we’ll see where this goes. I think we’re probably five years or more out from seeing any fruits from the labors but we’ve got our eye on both the commercial market and inside the government.

 

How does the block buy from ULA square with plans to bring competition to the U.S. national security launch market?

There’s a multiphase plan to this block buy. The first phase is obviously with ULA because they are the only certified provider. But there will be onramps for new entrants in the future and full and open competition that will allow them, assuming that they can get certified, to compete for national security launches.

 

What are some of your other industrial-base concerns?

We certainly are concerned about not producing enough people in the science, technology, engineering and math areas; frankly I consider it a national security issue in its broadest sense that we just aren’t producing enough technical people out of our colleges and certainly not enough technical people that are eligible for security clearances.

 

What are your plans in the realm of Operationally Responsive Space?

I think you’ll see us perhaps spend less in a programmatic sense on Operationally Responsive Space but we’re still very interested in the enabling concepts of Operationally Responsive Space.

 

Commercial satellites by some accounts provide 80 percent of the military’s satellite bandwidth. Are you comfortable with that or would you prefer to see more traffic carried over your own platforms?

We are looking at all potential architectures for the future. So, for example, could we go to 100 percent commercial for just typical wideband communications in the future? That’s certainly under consideration. Should we provide some level of assured government capability and then contract out the rest? All options really are on the table for wideband satellite communications.

 

Does that mean you’re OK with the current mix?

We’ve been very successful, albeit our business approach has been probably more expensive than we would like — and we’re looking to address that — but we’re comfortable with the amount of commercial satellite communications we use today.

 

Is the Air Force committed to fielding its own weather satellite system or can it rely on civilian satellites for this data?

There are unique military requirements that are not satisfied by those other systems so we’re going to have to find a way to satisfy those requirements in a future program.

 

What’s the status of the JSPOC Mission System upgrade?

We took a hard look at that program last year and determined that we weren’t on a healthy path toward getting a good system so we have gone to a much more streamlined acquisition approach. We intend to get to a very capable system for the JSPOC, an open architecture, one that is a plug-and-play kind of architecture, where we can bring in new applications and throw the old ones away when we no longer find them useful.

 

Has the Air Force settled on a procurement approach to the JSPOC upgrade?

No, we’re still very much in the acquisition phase here but I think you’ll find us shy away from proprietary kinds of things and go to a very open architecture.

 

What is your primary focus in terms of improving space situational awareness?

Bringing all the data together, fusing it and presenting a picture to the operator that shows them what is occurring in space and what is going to occur in space. We’re much more reactive now and we want to get to the place where we’re proactive in our capabilities in space.

 

Can you be more specific?

We are generally in the place where an event has happened and we do the forensics on the event to determine what happened. What we would like to do is predict that the event and be in a place to avoid the situation. We track roughly 20,000 objects in space but we’re screening a much lower number for potential of collision. We want to get to the place where we can do what we call all-on-all studies with the computing power that we can bring to the JSPOC.

 

Does that mean being able to screen everything that you’re tracking?

Exactly.

 

The Air Force’s Commercially Hosted Infrared Payload is now on orbit. Could part of the service’s missile warning mission be offloaded to infrared sensors hosted on commercial satellites?

The potential is there, certainly for tactical. The potential is there for things like GPS. The potential is there for satellite communication. We think there are lots of things that we need to look at here. There are pros and cons, no doubt about it, but we sure need to look at the options.

 

Have you modified your GPS 3 procurement plan?

We have altered our acquisition strategy on GPS 3 to bring on, rather than chunks of capability in GPS Block 3A, B and C, we’ve done away with that nomenclature and gone to just GPS 3 with opportunities for onramps of technology. As we looked at affordability, as we looked at how we wanted to really kind of streamline the acquisition of GPS 3, we came to the conclusion that this was a better way to go.