Maintaining space superiority was a prevalent theme at the 34th Space Symposium in Colorado Springs, CO, which brought together senior space leaders from government and industry. Once considered a benign environment, space is now a viewed by U.S. military leadership as a warfighting domain, just like land, air, sea and cyber.
Partnerships between agencies, allies and, importantly, with the industry are a key element of the emerging U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) strategy to preserve access to critical space capabilities in the face of growing threats posed by potential U.S. adversaries, senior national security leaders said.
“In a contested space environment, partnerships strengthen our advantage and complicate potential adversary decision-making,” said Gen. Jay Raymond, commander of U.S. Air Force Space Command, which delivers space capabilities to the warfighters. He noted, for example, the Air Force’s strong relationship with the U.S. National Reconnaissance Office (NRO), which buys and operates the nation’s reconnaissance satellites.
“We’ve also got several partnership opportunities we’re working with the commercial world,” Raymond said. “Those range from launch to re-entry and everything in between.”
Bookended by launch and re-entry are commercial satellite-delivered services including imagery and communications, upon which the military and intelligence community have come to depend.
DoD Looks to Determine Next-Generation Architecture
“In the old days, the processing power of the [communications] throughput that was available out there in industry was not what we needed—we had to develop our own,” NRO Director Betty Sapp said in a Space Symposium keynote address. “Those days are long gone—commercial has more than what we need.”
The Defense Department in recent years has spent $1 billion or more on commercial satellite capacity, according to space industry officials. Commercial satellites continue to carry a significant portion of U.S. military communications traffic, and demand is expected to increase in the coming years.
The Air Force, an operator of the Wideband Global Satcom system that the service characterizes as the backbone of its satellite communications fleet, is in the midst of an Analysis of Alternatives (AoA) to determine the content of its next-generation architecture. A key question is what is the best mix of mix of government and commercially owned assets to help the DoD do its job in the years ahead.
DoD Underserved by Terrestrial Links
The DoD could realize an exponential leap in communications capability by pulling together multiple commercial and military constellations into a single network where users are able to move seamlessly between constellations. Gen John Hyten, Commander of U.S. Strategic Command, has stated that, “SATCOM systems are key to our continued strategic posture in space…”
Among those systems, SES’ O3b MEO fleet is unique in that it operates in Medium Earth Orbit (MEO) at about 8,000 kilometers in altitude, whereas the others are geostationary systems located 36,000 kilometers above the equator. The lower altitude of the O3b’s MEO satellites allow them to relay signals with significantly less lag time, or latency, than geostationary systems. U.S. military officials have touted the benefits of low-latency systems as forces increasingly rely on satellites to support so-called enterprise applications that often are intolerant of signal delays.
SES’ O3b MEO constellation currently consists of 16 satellites, with four more slated to launch next year and seven next-generation O3b mPower spacecraft slated to begin launching in 2021.
“SES continues to enhance our O3b MEO constellation to provide fiber-like services to multiple U.S. government customers at its 17 sites worldwide,” said Peter Hoene, President and Chief Executive Officer of Reston, Va.-based SES Government Solutions, that exclusively serves US government customers. “In combination with SES’ geostationary satellites, O3b MEO provides connectivity that is flexible, reliable and resilient.”
Air Force Devoted to Industry Partnerships
Air Force Lt. Gen. John F. Thompson, commander of the service’s Space and Missile Systems Center (SMC), which oversees the acquisition of most U.S. military space systems, said a just-announced SMC reorganization will help ensure that commercial capabilities are appropriately integrated into the overall military space architecture. As part of the reorganization, unveiled by Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson in a keynote speech here April 17, the service is creating a “chief architect” position to consider the space enterprise as a whole, rather than its individual component parts.
“Our portfolio architect that Secretary Wilson also mentioned will have an office completely devoted to partnerships to ensure that we keep those connections and put together the best space systems that we possibly can,” Thompson told reporters at a Symposium press conference April 19.
The SMC reorganization comes amid continued debate over whether the Air Force is properly structured to address its current and future challenges in space.
In a speech to a government affairs breakfast at the Symposium co-sponsored by the Space Foundation and SES Government Solutions, Doug Loverro, former U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Space Policy, said that during the 1960s and 1970s, the service did a great job of cultivating internal expertise on the subject. This was accomplished not through a formal structure but by allowing Air Force officers to build on their space knowledge as they moved to different and progressively higher positions, both within the service and at other agencies like the NRO and NASA.
That wholistic space cadre development was lost via what Loverro called “a long and disconnected series of unfortunate events,” in which the Air Force unwittingly created bureaucratic barriers between space operations and acquisition personnel and hindered the career advancement of space professionals. While he stopped short of advocating a quasi-independent Space Corps, as some stakeholders have advocated, he said the space enterprise might benefit through formal structures designed to enhance the development of career space professionals.