[Via Satellite 03-12-2015] The United States Air Force sees now as the opportune time to pursue more creative paths with future satellite designs. David Madden, director of the Military Satellite Communications Systems Directorate at the Air Force Space Command (USAF) Space and Missile Systems Center (SMC) said that the current momentum the U.S. has with satellites both on orbit and in production has created a window that the government should exploit to find ways to improve its space segment.
“We are in a good spot right now, but we only have a limited period of time and we need to be investing in some of the technologies and demonstrations that will enable us to prepare to embark on a next generation system. If we don’t, we are going to squander this time,” Madden said at a March 11 Mitchell Institute event.
The Air Force is steadily continuing plans for future Global Positioning System (GPS), Advanced Extremely High Frequency (AEHF) and Space-Based Infrared System (SBIRS) satellites, having budgeted new spacecraft for each of these programs. Notably, Madden said the Air Force intends to compete additional Global Positioning System (GPS) 3 satellites, with Request for Proposals (RFPs) in 2018 for space vehicle 11. Lockheed Martin is the current prime contractor GPS 3.
Renewing competition is a key way the Air Force hopes to fuel innovation within satellite manufacturing. Madden added that for SBIRS 5 and 6, the military is interested in using designs that are smaller, cheaper and quicker to build. Further evolution for SBIRS 7 and 8 could see a wide field payload. This process would start with competing a payload, followed by another competition for a new spacecraft bus.
U.S. government spacecraft come with very high standards, making both the bus and payloads complex and costly. The satellites must provide critical, secure communications in extreme environments, even up to nuclear situations. But Madden stressed that changes in the way government approaches procuring new satellites are necessary to ultimately save costs.
“We’ve got to figure out how do we do this and not end up with a $500 million payload, because otherwise with the budget environment we are in, you’re going to lose the numbers game,” he said.
According to Madden, the space budget has dropped roughly 25 percent since fiscal year 2012, forcing the military to learn how to cost effectively deliver all its space-based services in a more austere environment. He attributed this success in part to the current production phase of satellites, culminating in $1 billion saved on AEHF, $1 billion on SBIRS and $4 billion on launch. Madden voiced the unpopular opinion that the budget crunch has yielded some positive impacts in the long run.
“When the budgets dropped, it forced us to step back from the problem and think a little bit differently about it,” he said. “We’re having conversations now that no one would have allowed us to have if we had a $10 billion a year budget.”
Madden admitted unease about any continued decline in budget, especially if it were to dip as low as $5 billion. But due to these struggles, the Air Force is now looking at ways to save cost such as veering away from the “can’t fail” mentality that ratchets up the price of a satellite. Without room for a single failure, the agency must guarantee they can and will perform once in orbit. Cheaper and smaller satellites leave room to tolerate mistakes that would not result in irreparable losses. Madden said the government is looking at ways to keep the most capability while dropping the last 5 percent or so of program requirements — the fraction that often costs the most to sustain.
Bill Ostrove, aerospace and defense analyst at Forecast International told Via Satellite that government spending on satellite communications programs appears to be stabilizing. Though appropriations requests saw a slight decline for fiscal year 2016 compared to fiscal year 2015, the variance was not as great as in previous years.
“The one factor that might force increased spending will be when satellites being launched now — like AEHF, WGS, and [the Mobile User Objective System] MUOS — begin to show their age. The Pentagon may also begin to request more funding once it figures out how it will proceed with future military satellite communications architecture,” he said.
A new challenge, Madden pointed out, as AFSPC moves forward is shifting away from old satellite technology that is both outdated and costly to produce. Recreating spacecraft based on aging satellite designs in today’s environment is resulting in hundreds of millions of dollars in extra cost.
“Most of the systems we built were designed in the 1990’s. So that’s our baseline that we are to march forward to, but the problem is we’re dealing with parts obsolescence issues with the systems. If we try to keep building the same things then, from most of the analysis we’ve seen, it would cost more to build the same thing with the same capability than it would if we modernized the system,” said Madden.
Still, it took a long time to progress the systems currently in use. Marred by difficulties in their development, Ostrove cautioned that decision makers might have their own ideas about what is best.
“The current satellite programs suffered from years of cost overruns and schedule delays. Many at the Pentagon and in Congress will want to avoid those problems from happening again. This could force planners to proceed slower and more deliberately than they normally would have,” he said.
Despite challenges, SMC has found ways to try new things. For example, the Green Propellant Infusion Mission (GPIM), a collaborative experimental satellite between industry and government, will fly for a year now instead of the originally planned two months. The reason: the addition of three hosted payloads to try new capabilities for warfighters. The U.S. government also purchased transponders on a commercial satellite in an elliptical orbit, saving money by making use of a satellite that, albeit limited, the government does not have to operate. Madden showed enthusiasm at better leveraging commercial skillsets, including a potential handover of Telemetry, Tracking and Control (TT&C) for WGS to industry by 2016.
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