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Budget Cuts, Growing Threats Affect Space Operations

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Until recently, space was a peaceful domain where orbital and flying craft were unprotected, but adversaries now are developing systems designed to counter advantages gained by those using such space capabilities, the commander of Air Force Space Command said here yesterday.

Air Force Gen. William L. Shelton spoke at the Atlantic Council on the U.S. future in space.

“Our satellites were not built with such threats in mind,” Shelton said. There hasn’t been a launch failure in 72 consecutive national security launches, he added, and satellites have lasted so much longer than their designed lifespan that the nation accidentally gained overlap between “father and daughter” satellites.

“Space largely has been a peaceful sanctuary up to this point,” the general said, “and due to the cost of each of these intricate machines, we build just enough capability and build it just in time. … We don't really plan for anything but success.”

Now, he said, “we have a clear and present danger to contend with that I believe must change our calculus on resiliency.”

Traffic is building in space, as many new entrants have joined the ranks of spacefaring nations and counter-space capabilities are becoming more concerning, Shelton explained. The Air Force must adapt its satellite constellations in response to such growing threats and elevate its game in space situational awareness, he said.

And, the general said, Air Force Space Command is addressing this challenging space environment in the midst of a decreasing budget outlook.

“Space forces are foundational to every military operation, from humanitarian to major combat operations. It really doesn’t matter -- space has to be there, … continuously deployed in place, providing communications, missile warning, navigation, space surveillance and weather services,” Shelton said.

Still, he added, Space Command’s share of reductions as part of overall Air Force reductions included a space surveillance asset that saved $6 million per year, operationally useful sensor redundancy at launch bases that cut another few million dollars per year, and drastic cuts in headquarters contractor support that saved money but substantially reduced capability.

“All told, we cut close to $1 billion from our annual budget in fiscal year 2013 and [fiscal] 2014 combined,” the general said.

“The bottom line on our budget situation is this: we made the needed adjustments in fiscal years 2013 and 2014], and [fiscal] 2015 right now looks like it will be feasible,” he added. “But the law of the land is still sequestration for [fiscal] 2016 and beyond. Should Congress decide not to grant relief from [the severe budget cuts of] sequestration, I don't know how my command can absorb the mandated reductions.”

To elevate the Air Force’s game in space situational awareness, Shelton explained his priorities for future satellite constellations as a nexus, aiming for an overlap of required capability, resilience and affordability. To illustrate the idea, he used the Air Force’s Advanced Extremely High Frequency, or AEHF, satellite constellation as an example.

“This is the constellation the president would use in existential circumstances for the United States to command and control nuclear forces and to ensure continuity of the United States government,” Shelton said. The required constellation consists of four satellites, just enough for worldwide assured coverage, he added.

If an adversary took out one satellite in the constellation, a geographic hole would open, potentially preventing the president from communicating with forces in that part of the world, the general said.

“We’re looking at a range of options to make this scenario much less probable -- for example, disaggregating our constellations for increased flexibility and survivability.”

The satellite carries strategic and tactical communications packages, Shelton said, explaining disaggregation. If the payloads were separated onto two or three satellites, he said, they would be much more resilient to a single shot, and each satellite would be less complex, would weigh less and would cost less to launch.

Air Force Space Command is also considering the following possibilities, Shelton said:

-- Hosting payloads on commercial or other government satellites;.

-- Lowering the cost or complexity of getting capability and capacity into space;

--- Leveraging commercial capability such as satellite communications rather than building dedicated military satellites; and

-- Exploring partnerships with other nations to share the responsibility of sustaining critical space capabilities.

“We've already done this with our Wideband Global SATCOM Satellite,” he added, “and partnered with Australia, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Canada, Denmark and Luxembourg.”

Shelton said he believes the Air Force needs less complexity and more flexibility in its constellations, and that it will have to make decisions soon on its longer-term approaches.

“Our need date is the mid-2020s for replacements to the current satellite programs of record,” he said. “With long budgeting and development timelines, we’re looking at decisions in the [fiscal] 2017 program, which works through the Pentagon next year.

“We're watching carefully as other nations significantly increase their investment in counter-space programs,” he continued. “We absolutely must adjust our approach and response, and the time for those decisions is approaching very rapidly.”

Another way the Air Force Space Command is improving its real-time space situational awareness, or SSA, is through a new architecture approved for SSA, Shelton said. The first critical step, he added, is the Joint Space Operations Center Mission System Program, or JMS.

“This open-architecture, high-performance computing environment will be a several-orders-of-magnitude improvement over our current system,” he said. “And by the way, the last major upgrade to our current system was in 1994.”

JMS will give Air Force Space Command a modern sensor data-processing capability plus a command-and-control environment for all space forces. The command also is making sensor improvements, Shelton said.

“We just awarded the contract for the Space Fence that will be built on Kwajalein Island in the Western Pacific,” he added. “This new radar will produce thousands of observations every day, covering almost all orbital inclinations.”

The Space Fence will be much more sensitive and will be able to track unscheduled events in space, such as threatening satellite maneuvers and rocket body breakups that cause increased orbital debris traffic, Shelton said.

“We've shipped a converted space-launch tracking radar to Western Australia to give us much better near-Earth space situational awareness in the Southern Hemisphere,” the general added, “and we will send to Australia a DARPA-developed telescope that is currently in New Mexico.”

DARPA is the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. Its C-Band mechanical tracking ground-based radar can accurately track up to 200 objects a day and can help identify satellites, their orbits and potential anomalies, according to a fact sheet about the system.

When the radar is relocated to Australia, it will be the first low-Earth-orbit space surveillance network sensor in the Southern Hemisphere. The new location will give needed southern and eastern hemispheric coverage that will lead to better positional accuracies and predictions.

“This very capable telescope will do a great job of deep-space surveillance from that unique vantage point in Western Australia,” Shelton said.

Today the Air Force is scheduled to launch two operational satellites into near-geosynchronous orbit, he added. The satellites are part of the Geosynchronous Space Situational Awareness Program, or GSSAP.

The GSSAP satellites will give U.S. Strategic Command space situational awareness data that allows for more accurate tracking and characterization of human-made orbiting objects, according to the Air Force News Service.

“This Neighborhood Watch twosome will help protect our precious assets in geosynchronous orbit,” Shelton said, “plus, they will be on the lookout for nefarious capabilities other nations might try to place in that critical orbital regime.”

The general said the two satellites would provide a lot of knowledge about geo-traffic through the images they produce.

“GSSAP will also demonstrate enhanced maneuverability activities that include rendezvous and proximity operations during the developmental and operational test events shortly after launch,” he added.

The 1st Space Operations Squadron at Schriever Air Force Base in Colorado Springs will then have rendezvous and proximity operations in its toolkit to allow GSSAP to maneuver to get the best possible vantage point for collecting images when required, the general added.

GSSAP represents a big leap forward in situational awareness at geosynchronous orbit, he said.

“With new data sources and a new system to process the data, later in this decade we will have truly enhanced our ability to monitor activity in space,” Shelton said. “And the big payoff [is that] we can transition from a reactive posture in space to becoming much more proactive, predicting space activity and anticipating outcomes.”

(Follow Cheryl Pellerin on Twitter @PellerinDoDNews)

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