Small satellites could offer big benefits, so why the wait?
Greg Ellison (l) and Dale Stottlemeyer, spacecraft mechanical engineers, Space Vehicles Directorate, U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory, work on Tactical Satellite 2 (TacSat-2). The micro satellite is scheduled for launch this year.
After years of discussion, some military experts still disagree about the next step for the Operationally Responsive Space concept. While many believe the time for study and analysis is over, others say questions remain about the details of the capability’s benefits for warfighting. Despite these differences, all agree that the time to move forward is now and that funding remains one of the biggest impediments to progress.
The Operationally Responsive Space (ORS) concept, a joint
Last year, the House Armed Services Committee’s Subcommittee on Strategic Forces tasked the Government Accountability Office (GAO) with examining the status of the U.S. Defense Department’s TacSat and low-cost launch vehicle work. Specifically, the GAO was asked to identify the program’s challenges and to determine whether lessons learned from the effort could be applied to the department’s major space system acquisitions.
After conducting a nine-month review consisting of interviews with Defense Department and industry officials as well as analyses of documents and studies, the GAO reported its findings in March 2006. It determined that four factors contributed to the successful development of TacSat-1: managing requirements well, using mature technologies, building in a research and development rather than acquisition environment and sustaining robust leadership for the program—a factor that facilitated both funding and cooperation. Despite this success, launch of TacSat-1 has been delayed for more than two years as the work on a low-cost small launch vehicle continues.
Delays and sluggish progress have caused much frustration for several experienced members of the military community who firmly believe in the potential of space-based assets not only in fighting wars but also perhaps in preventing them. However, resolving the incongruity between the apparent success of the TacSat-1 program and the lack of momentum to move forward does not appear to be as cut-and-dried as giving the overall ORS concept the signal to lift off or to abort. Instead, the issues are as integrated as today’s common operational picture.
Deliberations about moving forward with the ORS concept reveal that some of the specifics are still being debated. A matter that continues to spark discussion among military leaders with decades of experience in space capabilities is the adequacy of existing technical capabilities. Some believe that technologies available today are capable enough to continue to push ahead with experimentation; others are concerned that current systems may not be enough to fully demonstrate the benefits of ORS, a factor that could be key in decisions to continue work on the concept.
Despite these differences, however, several experts agree on a number of fundamental points. Among these are the need to increase funding, to advocate the value of small satellites, to design a strategy for their use and to encourage experimentation and risk-taking. They also agree on industry’s role in proceeding: businesses and contracting practices must change if the
Maj. Gen. Robert A. Rosenberg, USAF (Ret.), believes that all of these factors stifle progress on the ORS concept and that their roots are deep. In fact, more than 10 years ago, the general, who serves on several government advisory boards and refers to himself as a “vice president emeritus” of Science Applications International Corporation, wrote a paper about these impediments titled Has Loss of the Evil Empire Made the U.S. Space Community Irrelevant? And the issues he raised in 1995 are still eerily apropos today.
For example, in his paper Gen. Rosenberg pointed out that the world was rapidly changing with a continuously disruptive impact on even the best military planners’ approaches to the architecture of
The general also predicted how the commercial sector could affect the nature of warfare. The proliferation of commercial space capabilities would expand availability to adversaries, he said, and he even envisioned that warfighters would be equipped with cell phones from home, a practice that could make battalions targets if not used wisely. These and other insights led Gen. Rosenberg to call on the military to begin demonstrating the relevancy of space to the battlefield. Specifically, he cited the need for strategy development, resource commitment and concept demonstrations.
He stands by those opinions today with an even greater sense of urgency. The U.S. Air Force, which
Brig. Gen. S. Peter Worden, USAF (Ret.), agrees that the time to move forward in many ORS concept areas is now. The general, who recently was named the director of
Gen. Worden points out a number of obstacles that stand in the way of progress; top among these stumbling blocks is funding. “While everybody is saying the right things, there still isn’t—and I think this is what the GAO indicated—there’s nothing in the budget yet. This is all operating on DARPA [Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency] money and congressional earmarks. The Air Force needs to walk the walk now that it’s talked the talk. That means that it’s got to make money available,” he states.
Strong and vocal leadership would help boost funding support, the general maintains. “It needs to start from the top and with somebody that controls money. In some sense, that’s basically Air Force Space Command leadership and the SMC [Space and Missile Systems Center] leadership, and they haven’t done that, frankly,” Gen. Worden says. This leadership must come from technically smart leaders; however, there is a shortfall in this area in the Air Force, he adds.
Gen. Rosenberg agrees that the Air Force has fallen short in developing its personnel’s technical expertise in the area of space systems engineering and systems integration. This knowledge is required for military leaders both to develop the concepts for using small satellites and to promote the benefits it would offer warfighters, he says.
Gen. James P. McCarthy, USAF (Ret.), also is among the proponents of moving the ORS concept forward; however, he questions whether the objectives that the Defense Department has set out for the program are achievable with current technologies. Gen. McCarthy is the Academy Research and Development Institute professor of national security at the U.S. Air Force Academy in
|TacSat-2 features 11 onboard instrument packages, including an enhanced commercial imager, a common datalink and an experimental solar array.|
Gen. McCarthy acknowledges that the technology is sufficiently evolved to continue to experiment with TacSats to determine whether they work. But he points out that the true goal is achieving operational capability, which will require developing a systems approach and recognizing that challenges persist in payloads, buses and on-demand launchers. “I think we’re still in the development of a science and technology portfolio and the experimental phase rather than a race to launch. Now, would I like to launch what we’ve already done so far? Of course. But this requires some interesting technology that I think is achievable as long as we don’t overreach,” he states.
Part of the technology enigma that needs to be understood and solved is how to put ample capabilities on the TacSats so they actually benefit warfighters. “Put a satellite up there that can’t accomplish what the warfighter needs? What’s the point? Now, it’s certainly achievable, but it is not as easy a challenge as the GAO report suggests,” Gen. McCarthy maintains. Hammering out the solution still requires determining how to increase capabilities while decreasing weight and cost, he adds.
The primary military organization focusing on solving these technical puzzles is the Space Vehicles Directorate at the U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory at Kirtland Air Force Base,
Wegner believes that today’s technology is close to giving a foot soldier and the tactical warfighter the kind of space capabilities needed. “It’s not a huge technical leap from where we are right now. Is it cost-effective? Is that the best use of the warfighter’s time? Does the tactical warfighter need that kind of support? Those are all questions that I don’t think we’ve addressed. In other words, nobody’s done an analysis of alternatives to say, ‘Yes, if I give the tactical warfighter this kind of space capability, it saves this much money; it’s this much more effective; it saves this many more lives.’ And I think that’s much of what is holding us back,” he says.
All of the experts agree that current funding is inadequate to cut the technical, operational and utilitarian strands of this Gordian knot and determine the right course for the future. Gen. McCarthy acknowledges the budgeting challenges the
Gen. Worden agrees and warns of serious consequences if the
“That said, our potential adversaries—and I include economic adversaries in that group—are way ahead of us in this area. So what I foresee is if we don’t do this, we’re going to get ourselves in a crisis leading up to a conflict where we are going to be maneuvered into an unacceptable situation. No matter how good our space systems are, the other guy is going to be able to put his systems up and reconfigure them in a way that puts us in an untenable situation. I can clearly see that happening already,” Gen. Worden says. The
Responsive Space Ties to Manufacturing Innovation
While employing the Operationally Responsive Space concept would mean deep change for the
One vital element of the Operationally Responsive Space (OSR) initiative is adopting the plug-and-play methodology for satellite construction. It is considered the best way to increase the speed at which tactical satellites (TacSats) can be built then launched into space. Rather than developing custom-design satellites, which can take years and cost millions if not billions of dollars, companies would be called upon to design standard components.
Dr. Peter M. Wegner, leader of the responsive space task area, Space Vehicles Directorate, U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory, Kirtland Air Force Base,
According to Maj. Gen. Robert A. Rosenberg, USAF (Ret.), this technique has not been considered until now for a number of reasons. First, current military acquisition practices entail only signing large contracts for spacecraft; however, in most cases these designs include immature technologies that lead to corrections and cost overruns. Transforming the status quo will require deep cultural change, he says.
On the commercial side, Gen. Rosenberg points out that the
The general proposes offering financial incentives to entice contractors. These offers not only could be aimed at moving companies to the plug-and-play model but also could be applied to large satellite programs, rewarding companies that deliver products under budget and/or within schedule. In addition, once nurtured, the plug-and-play technique could be deployed in large satellite production as well, he says.
Wegner believes that some companies would be open to changing the way they do business if it meant getting in on the ground floor of how the military plans to conduct operations in space in the future. “It’s very clear that if the U.S. Defense Department speaks with a strong unified voice, industry follows. And we’ve had strong voices within the Defense Department today on ORS, but those voices have been scattered. They’re not all well defined yet, so industry’s reaction has been sporadic. One company thinks this is a great strategic direction; other companies have a wait-and-see approach,” he says.
Space Vehicles Directorate, U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory: www.vs.afrl.af.mil