Air Force wants to trim satellite costs

The Air Force wants to change how it develops, acquires and manages its satellite programs.

In an era of increasing international competition in space and shrinking budgets, the U.S. military must rethink how it acquires, manages and runs its satellite programs, a top Air Force official said Nov. 10.

Secure communications and the satellites that provide them continue to be a cornerstone of U.S. national security policy, said Lt. Gen. Ellen Pawlikowski, commander of the Air Force’s Space and Missile Systems Center. Speaking at the MILCOM conference in Baltimore, Md., she noted that two major new satellite constellations, the Advanced Extremely High Frequency (AEHF) and Wideband Global SATCOM (WGS) spacecraft are coming online and will provide the military with enhanced communications for decades to come.

But despite the many benefits and advantages of these systems, they remain expensive and operationally inflexible. There are four satellites in the WGS constellation. While they will provide global coverage, it took seven years to build and launch them, Pawlikowski said. Given the long timelines for developing, building and launching military satellites, this leaves DOD constellations vulnerable to both attrition in the face of enemy attacks and obsolescence because of rapid technological change, she said.

Yet, even with constricted budgets, there is a growing need for secure military communications. However, Pawlikowski noted that an architecture to support future operations with protected communications is lacking due to the inflexibility of the current space acquisition and deployment processes. “We need to look at other ways to provide that capability,” she said.

One way to provide additional communications and bandwidth is by either launching smaller, less expensive satellites or hosting payloads on commercial or coalition spacecraft. Key to this will be designing in affordability, functionality and resiliency into both the ground and space segments, Pawlikowski said. She noted that 70 percent of the cost of a satellite system is in the ground segment. The DOD and industry must rethink how satellite ground terminals are designed. “The days of separate ground and gateway infrastructures are over,” she said.

A major driver of terminal costs for military systems is additional hardening to protect systems in a nuclear war environment, she said.

To save money and maximize its research and development capabilities, the Air Force is releasing a broad area announcement to get ideas from the private sector about future capabilities. By working with industry to create smarter business arrangements for developing, launching and managing satellites, Pawlikowski said she hopes to save the Air Force money while getting the maximum benefit from commercial technologies.