The last decade of investment in research, development and operations has yielded important space-based mission capabilities that differentiate the United States and its allies in the execution of national security objectives. These capabilities reaffirm the fruits of our labor, and our dedication to a strong national security space program is paying off.
Today’s global military and intelligence operations require timely intelligence, reconnaissance, warning and communications. The smaller, more lethal military force planned for the postwar period is required to be responsive and agile across a complex set of global demands, and this demands effective space capabilities.
Recent satellite deployments provide impressive new capabilities that are more than an order of magnitude improvement over the systems they replace. Mobile and hardened communication upgrades provide breadth, depth and versatility.
The deployments of the Wideband Global Satcom System Block 2, Mobile User Objective System and Advanced Extremely High Frequency satellites provide mission-critical communications beyond what is commercially available. Our forces demand seamless access to simultaneous voice, video and data connectivity, leveraging mobile and secure communications technology, to meet their mission needs.
Additionally, overhead persistent infrared capabilities have improved with the Space Based Infrared System (SBIRS) in both geostationary and highly elliptical orbits, providing substantially improved sensor sensitivity and flexibility to provide missile warning, missile defense, technical intelligence and battlespace awareness.
The SBIRS GEO-1 sensors are detecting targets 25 percent dimmer with a 60 percent improved intensity measurement. The National Geospatial Intelligence Agency, which serves as the mission manager for overhead persistent infrared, recognizes the significance of this performance to expand technical intelligence-gathering capabilities and bolster situational awareness for war fighters. Users across the national and military communities are networking, collaborating and combining systems and sensors in exciting ways to better understand adversary capabilities and intent.
Now, as we bask in the aura of these mission successes, we must remember that launching and operating satellites have never been easy. Given the substantial effort and expense of these missions, there is an imperative to ensure that our collective experience is best leveraged to improve tradecraft and mission performance and not to relearn any mistakes.
Industrial-base capabilities must be carefully managed as we shift programs from invention and design to production. Without a keen eye and steady management hand, decades of experience and specialized capabilities and facilities can disappear quickly. Losing key skills that are required for research, development and operation of space-based capabilities that are raising the performance expectation bar is a surprise that we cannot tolerate.
The Office of the Secretary of Defense Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation (CAPE) organization over the past few years has collected and analyzed an extensive amount of data that reaffirms the quality of the learning that occurs in complex development programs. Cost and performance variances can be reduced by program efficiencies that begin with managed production and capability evolution within a predictable budget environment.
Combine this approach with comprehensive, empowered system engineering and mission- focused research and development, and our country will have the opportunity to produce satellites while inserting appropriate innovations, gaining mission performance and efficiencies in this austere budget environment.
Given our success with space hardware and software, it is now time to create contracting more focused on output and less tied to process. The U.S. Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center and National Reconnaissance Office have recently demonstrated contracting approaches to deliver a turnkey satellite and ground system efficiently into operations. This approach demonstrated excellent cost and schedule performance by better aligning government and contractor incentives.
In effect, we can increasingly achieve a convergence toward commercial best practices.
Six decades ago, space technology was in its infancy, with engineers learning how to harness the power of rocket boosters and payloads. Today, space and ground systems provide capabilities that are deeply ingrained into our operations, giving us impressive global reach and understanding.
Balancing risk and schedule with modern design and manufacturing, properly incentivized contracts with lean oversight, and reduced but stable budgets to allow efficient planning can reduce cost with acceptable risk and ensure critical support to military and national users. High mission assurance provided by proven, long-lived satellites launched in a timely manner on reliable, readily available boosters can hit the cost/performance sweet spot.
This is our time to show that the sum of the sensing and communication capabilities can provide a greater whole in ensuring mission success. The speed of global information within a seamless framework provides the U.S. with a worldwide strategic advantage.
Jeffrey Harris, chief executive of JKH Consulting, Bethesda, Md. He is a former director of the U.S. National Reconnaissance Office and was assistant secretary of the U.S. Air Force for space from 1994 to 1996.