Space Command is shedding more light on Hyten’s vision. But with the boss moving on, what happens now?
Officials from U.S. Air Force Space Command have spent the past five months meeting with more than 700 members of industry, often in classified sessions, in Washington, Colorado Springs and Los Angeles, to discuss Gen. John Hyten’s “Space Enterprise Vision.”
Hyten, the head of Space Command, first introduced the plan during a speech in April after discussing it internally for more than eight months. But Air Force officials have offered few tangible details to the public since then.
While Space Command’s leaders are expected to reveal more information in a series of speeches this month, little has been discussed to date aside from the fact that the Space Enterprise Vision would guide the Space Mission Force, a previously released plan for training military satellite operators, and an effort to evolve the current satellite ground control systems into one platform, known as the Enterprise Ground Services.
Maj. Gen. Nina Armagno, who oversees strategic plans and programs at Space Command, agreed to discuss the basics of the plan with SpaceNews. Armagno outlined the Space Enterprise Vision this way:
Moving to smaller satellites with a three- to five-year design life.
WHAT SPACE COMMAND WANTS: “We need an architecture that is survivable for the space enterprise,” Armagno said. “What may that look like? We think what it looks like is smaller satellites, that are three- to five- year design life, that can be acquired more quickly, can be technologically refreshed more quickly and then launched on tactical timelines. It’s a more responsive architecture that way.”
Merri Sanchez, Space Command’s chief scientist, said at the Space and Missile Defense Symposium in August the plan acknowledges that if a conflict in space occurs, the Air Force will lose satellites. But it also insists the Defense Department continue to provide capabilities despite such an event. Studies have shown the Air Force would benefit from disaggregating some, but not all, of its satellite constellations, she said.
“If you were to disaggregate our current systems, which are amazing, there are so many things you would have to do differently,” Armagno said.
Satellites with three- to five-year design lives would be a stark change from the much-longer-lasting Battlestar Galacticas that have been the military and intelligence community’s go-to standard for decades. Studying a shift to smaller satellites is important now, Armagno said, because “you can’t disaggregate on a dime.”
WHAT THE AIR FORCE IS DOING: The Pentagon is already considering separating its tactical and strategic payloads for the next generation of missile warning and highly protected communications satellites. DoD leaders expect to make a decision on the next architecture of those programs this fall.
Earlier this year, Space Command studied putting additional maneuverability and propulsion capabilities on the last space vehicles for the Advanced Extremely High Frequency communications satellites and its Space Based Infrared System missile warning satellites still in production at Lockheed Martin’s Sunnyvale, California, factory. That kind of change would allow some of the Air Force’s most valuable satellites to take extra steps to protect themselves.
Cheaper rockets and more agile launch operations
WHAT SPACE COMMAND WANTS: Hyten has said one of his goals is to keep launch costs for medium-class missions under $100 million.
Armagno, who previously led Air Force launch efforts at Cape Canaveral in Florida and Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, said the Space Enterprise Vision requires accelerated launch operations. Currently, the integration of satellites with their launch vehicles takes 60 to 90 days if not longer. If a military satellite was damaged or destroyed on orbit, the Air Force would want a near-immediate replacement and the integration time would need to shrink to weeks, if not days, she said.
“You’ve got to get to the point where you run the range like an airport,” said Todd Probert, Raytheon’s vice president of mission support and modernization, who has received a briefing on the plan. A Raytheon team has a contract to run the Air Force’s launch sites at Cape Canaveral and Vandenberg. “You’ve got to get to a point where the processes and practices are repeatable. You have to change the concept of operations.”
Brig. Gen. Stephen Whiting, one of the primary authors of the Space Enterprise Vision, described a “freight train” to space approach that includes regular, pre-planned launches to specific orbits each year.
WHAT THE AIR FORCE IS DOING: Armagno pointed to work on the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency program known as Experimental Spaceplane-1, or XS-1. Theoretically, the spaceplane would launch 10 times in 10 days and carry payloads weighing as much as 1,360 kilograms into low Earth orbit for $5 million. A first flight is still years away.
Improved space situational awareness and battle management command and control
WHAT SPACE COMMAND WANTS: “We have to better understand what the threat is doing in space so we can get into protection mode,” Armagno said. “What our counter move may be. Right now, we don’t have a way to do anything like that.”
Armagno said Space Command’s leaders want intelligence on what’s happening in space that’s immediate, — or at least within minutes of the event — instead of making do with a post-event assessment.
“Today we can’t see everything in space we need to see,” she said.
“We can’t always tell if an object has maneuvered. This operational intelligence we would like to build would absolutely fill that gap.”
WHAT THE AIR FORCE IS DOING: The new $900 million Space Fence, an S-band radar system that is expected to track around 200,000 space objects 5 centimeters or larger, is expected to go online in 2018. That will provide data on 10 times the number of objects the Defense Department currently tracks.
In addition, the Air Force is including new battle management capabilities as part of an update to the software and hardware at the Joint Space Operations Center at Vandenberg Air Force Base. But, with the addition of a new experimental operations center at Schriever Air Force Base in Colorado Springs, there have been questions about where that capability would reside. DARPA and the Air Force Research Lab are also studying new battle management software prototypes and techniques.
Increased international partnerships and commercialization of routine tasks.
WHAT SPACE COMMAND WANTS: The ability to move what Armagno described as “routine tasks” such as telemetry, tracking and command and control or space traffic management to industry partners. Doing so would allow Space Command to “free up our airmen to do what we think they’re going to be called to do in the future, which is understand a thinking enemy and be able to react and defend our constellations. These partnership opportunities are exciting because they offer the chance for cost sharing as well as expanding capabilities.”
Mike Moran, director of government solutions for Harris Corp.’s intelligence community and Air Force space programs division, said the plan tries to ensure that a “military person is doing things only the military can do.”
ONGOING WORK: The Air Force partnered with Australia on the purchase of the sixth Wideband Global Satcom communications satellite, allowing Australia access to the constellation in exchange for the cost of building one satellite. The Air Force also will rely heavily on international satellites for key weather data in the next seven years as part of its long-term weather strategy.
One of the most frequent questions asked about the Space Enterprise Vision is when will industry get specifics from the Air Force? While Space Command officials have provided more details on the vision’s timelines in classified briefings, thus far, much of the nuts and bolts remains murky.
“It’s not clear how you go from a vision to an integrated system,” said Rebecca Cowen-Hirsch, senior vice president at the satellite communications company Inmarsat. “I can’t make investment decisions based on this.”
Harris Corp.’s Moran said while the plan helps validate defense companies’ direction for internal research and development efforts, he expects greater clarity will emerge in the coming months and years. He also suggested Space Command “put a carrot out there for industry to chase after” to help show how businesses can work with the Air Force to bring the vision to fruition.
Another concern is what will happen to Hyten’s vision when he moves on to his next assignment. Last week, President Obama nominated Lt. Gen. John “Jay” Raymond, the Air Force’s deputy chief of staff for operations, to be the next head of Space Command.
Hyten was nominated Sept. 9 to become the next head of U.S. Strategic Command, where he would continue to be a major player in the Defense Department’s space operations. That job also might ensure the Space Enterprise Vision does not become some passing fad or get stuffed in a drawer full of white papers.
“Having him continue in leadership will help sustain the effort” of the vision, Moran said.