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TacSat Delay Ignites Frustration

July 2006
By Maryann Lawlor
E-mail About the Author

 
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.
Small satellites could offer big benefits, so why the wait?

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 U.S. military initiative, actually comprises substantial changes in the United States’ employment of space as well as satellite construction. The first involves adding small, tactical satellites (TacSats) to the constellation of large satellites that already support operations. These miniature space-based assets would be deployed quickly to supply commanders with capabilities in weeks rather than months or years. The second change, which appears to be intricately entwined with the first, calls for an entirely new paradigm in the satellite-building business, moving it from a custom-design to the plug-and-play manufacturing process. Individually, these advances could pack a powerful punch; when combined, they would revolutionize the United States’ entire presence in space, a move that experts contend is essential for national security.

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 United States is to be the leader in this field. This applies not only to the tactical satellite initiative but also to current large satellite programs as well.

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 U.S. military forces. He predicted an increased dependence on the National Guard and Reserve, resulting in a tremendously growing need for space support to troops. Further, he stated that the requirement to enhance the tooth-to-tail ratio, to field brilliant weapons and to provide real-time command, control, communications and intelligence would demand integrating space with information-based warfare capabilities to maintain information dominance of the battlefield.

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 U.S. military leaders view as the steward of space, has yet to make a strong case for how and why space assets are relevant to operational warfighters, he states. Spelling out the benefits of ORS could compel the armed forces to dedicate the necessary resources to move the program forward in both technology and concepts of operations, he maintains.

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 AmesResearchCenter, Moffet Field, California, is one of the creators of the TacSat concept. “Everybody seems to say the right things, but now comes the showing. To my mind, the most important issue is to get a couple of responsive space systems or tactical satellites, launch them and do it in an exercise manner. That’s the next step: to get on with showing things are good. The time for studies and analyses is through,” he states.

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 Colorado Springs, Colorado. “You want to have the capabilities closer to those of the larger satellites and then you want to do that in a smaller volume, smaller weight. Then you want to have a launch vehicle that we have not yet proven successfully and combine all of those. I don’t know how you do that with existing technology,” he states.

 
TacSat-2 features 11 onboard instrument packages, including an enhanced commercial imager, a common datalink and an experimental solar array.
To address this issue, Gen. McCarthy believes that it is time to cautiously push the state of the art. However, he emphasizes that researchers should not overreach when developing capabilities, because the impact of failure is great. It leads to increases in cost, a problem the military currently is facing in the major satellite programs, he states. Gen. Rosenberg disagrees with this way of thinking to some degree. His extensive experience in some of the United States’ first satellite programs suggests that while sometimes taking risks leads to failure, it can ultimately result in useful technologies.

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, New Mexico. Dr. Peter M. Wegner, leader of the responsive space task area in the directorate, believes that in a general sense existing technology could provide individual warfighters with the kind of space capabilities that the ORS initiative aims to supply. While he agrees with Gen. McCarthy that the concept is still in the experimental stage, his reason is different and one that circles back to the issue raised by Gen. Rosenberg: proving the relevancy and value of TacSats.

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 U.S. military and government face today, but he believes ORS needs to be higher on the list of priorities. “I think the basic thrust of the ORS work is right with a little more emphasis on the basic technology development. Experimentation is a good way to go. I think the funding support is inadequate and needs to be more robust. I recognize that the overruns in the major satellite programs tend to pull money away from this type of activity, but I think that it should have a high enough priority to be reasonably funded and I don’t think that exists today,” he says.

Gen. Worden agrees and warns of serious consequences if the United States does not take action quickly. “There’s a lot of attention to space as an element of warfighting, and I think that’s certainly true, but that isn’t really the real forte of space. … We are going to be increasingly in crises, and I think with economic and military peer competitors it’s essential to get inside the enemy’s decision-act cycle. If you’re going to prevent a war, which I think is a more important task than fighting wars, space is ideal for getting inside a potential adversary’s decision-act cycle because it’s basically handling information, which is your weapon. If you can do that, if you can put up space capabilities and reconfigure them inside their decision-act cycle, that’s a powerful tool.

“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 U.S. will lose control of space, not with a Pearl Harbor-type bang but with a whimper, he adds.

Responsive Space Ties to Manufacturing Innovation

While employing the Operationally Responsive Space concept would mean deep change for the U.S. military, it may be the business sector that would have to transform its practices even more dramatically. Some believe substantial change is long overdue in manufacturing techniques, in acquisition procedures and in business strategies.

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, New Mexico, says the plug-and-play model in some sense is the underpinning of what the laboratory is trying to do in its ORS work. The technique is as different from current satellite-building methodology as building an English sports car is from assembling a computer. “The English sports car is built by hand, one at a time—each one can be unique. Every one of our satellites is built like this today. What we’re doing is looking at the information technology industry and the massive modular invasion there to standardize around interfaces. This has really driven innovation in the information technology sector, and we’re trying to bring that model into space systems,” Wegner says. Breaking the spacecraft into manageable chunks will drive innovation, reduce costs, increase capabilities and enable faster construction, he adds.

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 U.S. military does not offer incentives for industry to change the way it does business. Companies with hefty contracts to build large satellites are not likely to abandon lucrative ways of doing business for smaller contracts.

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.

 

Web Resources
Space Vehicles Directorate, U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory: www.vs.afrl.af.mil
TacSat-1: www.nrl.navy.mil/content.php?P=04REVIEW207
TacSat-2: www.vs.afrl.af.mil/FactSheets/RoadRunner.pdf
TactSat-3: www.afrl.af.mil/news/apr06/features/satellite_enhances.pdf