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Building a Road To High Ground

February 2003
By Henry S. Kenyon

Maintaining assured access to space is at the heart of command restructuring efforts.

More than 10 years after the end of the Cold War, the U.S. Defense Department is shedding old constructs from that period that have been hindering the department’s new thrust into space. A major component of these changes places the primary responsibility for acquiring and launching military space systems in the hands of the U.S. Air Force. Within the service, new commands and offices also are being established to interface with homeland security efforts and joint organizations such as the U.S. Northern Command.

Although space assets have been valued for decades, new technologies and mission requirements place greater importance on their coordinated use. By realigning responsibilities within the organizations that launch and buy spacecraft, government officials hope to provide warfighters with increased connectivity and intelligence on the battlefield.

To achieve these goals, the government has undertaken a series of changes across the military and intelligence services that encompass the national security space architecture. Following directives from Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld to improve the way the Defense Department buys and manages space systems, the Air Force is now responsible for overseeing these efforts as the primary provider of military satellite launch capability.

According to Peter B. Teets, undersecretary of the Air Force and director of the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO), Washington, D.C., the highest priority for government space initiatives is supporting U.S. forces fighting the war on terrorism. He believes that the results from the fighting in Afghanistan indicate that space assets are now more valuable to American warfighters than ever before. The best known examples of this capability are the global positioning satellite navigation systems and precision guided weapons used against Taliban and al Qaida forces. Other vital assets are the communications satellites linking front line troops to regional and strategic headquarters.

However, changes are necessary in the way the government manages and operates its space systems in order to provide greater and more robust capabilities to the military. Chief among these challenges is restructuring the way the Defense Department selects and implements new technologies. Because difficulties with several high-profile programs have shaken confidence in the system, Teets seeks to restore what he believes is lost faith in the government’s space acquisition activities.

Citing the example of the space-based infrared system (SBIRS)-high program, he notes that this effort suffered from cost overruns and delays related to clauses built into the original contract language. Recent problems with SBIRS and other acquisition programs began in the 1990s. After the fall of the Soviet Union, U.S. defense spending dropped dramatically. Smaller budgets affected space systems by slowing production and development. But while fewer satellites were being lofted, the demand for space assets grew, which led to increased risk levels for underfunded government space programs, Teets explains.

Because of the increased risk associated with operating on reduced budgets, provisions and clauses were placed into space acquisitions contracts that were intended to create greater flexibility for contractors. Teets observes that these clauses caused some of the schedule and cost problems encountered in programs such as SBIRS-high. “In essence, the government handed over the performance allocation and trade study stance to the contractor, saying, ‘We care about a few high-level parameters, but other than that, you’re on your own.’ In the case of a program that was already under budgeted, this is a formula for disaster because all you do is find out your problems late,” he says.

To address these issues, the SBIRS-high program was restructured and brought back on track. Changes were made in contract clauses and incentive structures. Some personnel were replaced, and more responsibility was placed on both contractors and the government to meet targets and stay within budget. “I’m not trying to say that it’s all a panacea, but we are making steady progress. I feel good about the way we have restructured the program and are moving forward,” Teets maintains.

A panel combining talent from the Defense Science Board and its Air Force equivalent was commissioned to study and recommend changes in space acquisition to fully implement lessons learned from restructuring SBIRS-high. Comprising space-industry officials selected for their skill and expertise, the panel began briefing the government in December and will submit a written report this month. Teets is sanguine about the panel’s recommendations. He notes it actively conducted interviews and reviewed programs across the entire spectrum of national security space efforts.

Another reason for the panel’s commissioning was to take a fresh look at the government’s space acquisition framework. Teets was not impressed with the way business had been conducted. “I’ve been very unpleasantly surprised at the state of budgeting of our major space programs. We found ourselves in a situation where we have budgeted to a most probable cost level of 50-50. In my experience, that is a formula for not succeeding,” he says.

The failure rate also was driven by a lack of available discretionary resources for program managers. As a result, if problems arose, it was very difficult to bring rapid, additional resources to bear to correct them. However, Teets is hopeful that the panel’s recommendations will help repair the acquisition system.

Strengthening the industrial base to provide a robust launch capability is another major challenge Teets faces. This is a high priority item because it affects what is known as assured access to space—the ability to launch satellites on short notice. He notes that the Defense Department currently has two contractors providing advanced launch systems, The Boeing Company and Lockheed Martin. Boeing recently launched the first of its new Delta IV series of rockets, and Lockheed Martin is producing its Atlas V family of launch vehicles for government use.

While Teets has high hopes for both rockets, he notes a fundamental problem with the system. The rockets are a part of the evolved expendable launch vehicle (EELV) system, which was developed during the commercial satellite launch boom. The developers of EELV envisioned a strong, robust commercial marketplace for satellite launches, but this has changed. “The bottom fell out of the market, frankly. And as a result, we have a situation in which both the Atlas and Delta programs are in money-losing operations right now,” he observes.

To correct this, Teets is working on methods to bolster the industrial base to provide assured access to space. Reliable products delivered on schedule are a key part of this initiative. Reviving the industrial base is also a special task item given to the space panel for consideration and recommendations, Teets emphasizes.

Transformation is another imperative for Defense Department space efforts. Teets explains that the goal is to make transformation a way of life in the department. “The world around us is changing, and we need to change with it. But we’re trying to do a couple of things for sure that will allow for more effective, better use of space capabilities,” he says.

One example of a move toward transformational technologies is an effort to develop advanced orbital communications systems overseen by Rear Adm. Rand H. Fisher, USN, director of the NRO’s Communications Directorate (see page 25). Adm. Fisher also is in charge of the Defense Department’s Transformational Communications Office (TCO). The goal of the TCO is to develop an architecture for fielding a space-based communications system that will dramatically increase bandwidth and provide the ability for military users to access the system with handheld devices. Although it will take some time to design and deploy, Teets believes it will improve warfighters’ communications links in terms of bandwidth and accessibility by a factor of 10.

The current reorganization and restructuring of Defense Department space efforts began in 2001, when Rumsfeld released a report recommending changes in Defense Department space initiatives. Teets notes that his position as both NRO director and undersecretary of the Air Force was created based on recommendations from this report. Other report suggestions implemented include designating the Air Force as the department’s executive agent for space and giving the undersecretary of the Air Force milestone decision-making authority.

Although some final details have to be worked out, the operating framework and organizational responsibilities have been laid out, Teets says. This led to a number of organizational changes. Among them, the National Security Space Architect has been moved from the Office of the Secretary of Defense and now reports directly to Teets’ office.

Bringing together and coordinating best practices across all national security space groups is the responsibility of the Pentagon’s newly formed National Security Space Integration Office. This directorate’s duty is to implement integrated space activities into a coherent strategy and conduct program assessment activities. An important part of these efforts is ensuring that participating groups and organizations are connected to and communicating with each other.

Another change has been to establish the Air Force Space Command as an independent major command (see page 17). Teets notes that this took place in April 2002, with Gen. Lance W. Lord, USAF, becoming its commanding officer. One of the more unusual shifts in the command structure involved moving Lt. Gen. Brian A. Arnold, USAF, from the Air Force Materiel Command to the Space Command’s Space and Missile Center, Los Angeles Air Force Base. This was based on the report’s recommendation that an experienced acquisition officer serve as program executive officer for the center. The general is the Air Force’s designated acquisition commander for the Air Force Satellite Control Network, the Space Lift Ranges, the Defense Meteorological Satellite Program, the Space-Based Laser Program and the Atlas, Delta, Titan and inertial upper-stage families of launch vehicles that provide assured access to space.

The reorganization also merged the U.S. Space Command into the U.S. Strategic Command. This change was not driven by any commission reports but rather by the need to streamline national security space efforts by creating a single, unified strategic command for the United States. In time of war, the Space Command will make the Air Force’s space assets available to the Strategic Command. Both organizations work closely to coordinate joint operations. Teets notes that while this process is only a few months old, substantial progress has been made to achieve interoperability.

Both of these new commands also will coordinate with the newly established Northern Command (SIGNAL, January, page 17). Under the command of Gen. Ralph E. Eberhart, USAF, the Northern Command is responsible for detecting and countering attacks on the United States from beyond its borders. “It very much relates to homeland defense because it will have the responsibility for knowing that an attack is on its way,” Teets says.

Besides reorganizing Defense Department space efforts, new reusable launch technologies will be explored. Although no major push exists at the moment, the Air Force Research Laboratory, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency all have advanced propulsion and platform programs underway that may be tapped. “We don’t have a major new system under development and currently don’t have a program that we are pushing for reusable launch systems. But we are looking at them. We’re looking at the technology necessary to support a successful reusable program,” he says.

The Defense Department is examining technologies for responsive expendable launch systems that can be launched easily on short notice. These systems would employ relatively low-cost technology, enabling the government to launch at affordable prices. Teets explains that the goal is to be dramatically affordable, with operational costs as low as $5 million a launch to place a thousand-pound payload into low-earth orbit.

Space-based radar is another related effort underway within the Defense Department. The goal of this program is to develop technologies to detect and track moving ground targets from space. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Lincoln Laboratory, Lexington, Massachusetts, has been commissioned to work with the Air Force’s Space and Missile Systems Center to help develop the architecture, concept definition and operational parameters for the system. If the initial work with the technology is successful, a program will be launched, Teets says.