A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launchs the Echostar 105/SES-11 communications satellite from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center.

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launchs the Echostar 105/SES-11 communications satellite from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. SpaceX

US Air Force Looks For New Ways to Buy, Protect Satellites

Ideas include smaller constellations — perhaps even spacecraft built to commercial standards.

PETERSON AIR FORCE BASE, COLORADO — The U.S. Air Force is looking to diversify its satellite constellations by buying smaller, cheaper spacecraft, part of a plan to better protect its space assets from Russian and Chinese interference, military officials say.

This and other moves are meant to give the Air Force backups to its existing, more expensive satellites, and ultimately make it more difficult for an enemy to disrupt services delivered via space.

“Adversaries are investing in capabilities to defeat our space [assets],” said Brig. Gen. John Shaw, Air Force Space Command’s head of requirements, plans, programs and analysis.

Mitigating the threat has become a top priority of senior defense officials. Deputy Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan — who now oversees the military’s space projects — visited Space Command on Monday for briefings here and at the National Space Defense Center at nearby Schriever Air Force Base.

But Air Force officials have been seeking ways to increase the resilience of space services for several years. Some of their newest ideas could come to light next week, when the Pentagon is expected to send its 2019 budget proposal to Congress.

Shaw declined to give details about the Air Force segment of that proposal, except to say it arose from “very good, vigorous discussion” by military leaders.

But some ideas emerged in unclassified discussions here. For example, officials are looking at buying smaller, cheaper satellites to detect enemy launches, move data and communications, and gather intelligence. Though they would neither replace nor last as long as the Air Force’s customary multibillion-dollar behemoths, the smaller spacecraft would augment them and serve as backups if the larger ones were attacked.

The Air Force is also considering buying satellites made to less expensive commercial standards, one official said, noting the military already buys bandwidth on commercial communications satellites.

Looking further down the road, Space Command’s Shaw talked about orbiting satellites five times farther from Earth, or making them far more maneuverable than current ones.

For new projects, officials said, they are focusing more on “essential requirements” and less on peripheral ones in an effort to buy and launch satellites faster.

Many satellite projects take 10 years to move from concept to launching the first in a constellation, and another five to make the constellation operational, Air Force officials said..

The Air Force is also changing its space organization to support these goals. The commander of Air Force Space Command will henceforth serve a six-year term, double its previous length, and a new three-star vice commander will be stationed at the Pentagon ito advocate for space projects, Shaw said.

The construct is similar to the one used by U.S. Special Operations Command, which bases its commander and deputy commander in Tampa and a three-star vice commander in Washington.

Congress rejected an Air Force plan to create a different three-star general billet for space at the Pentagon.