Gen. William Shelton, seen speaking last year, said budget cuts and growing threats have forced the U.S. to a “fork in the road” when it comes to space policy. (Michael J. Pausic / Air Force)
COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — Budget cuts and growing threats have forced the U.S. to a “fork in the road” when it comes to space policy, the head of Air Force Space Command said Tuesday.
“Every military operation, no matter how small, no matter how large, all the way from humanitarian operations through full-scale major combat operations, depend heavily on space operations,” Gen. William Shelton told a packed crowd at the 29th annual National Space Symposium here.
Maintaining that technology is key to American national security, Shelton said, but dominance is no longer assured.
“There are storm clouds that are on the horizon. Space was once a benign, much less crowded place,” Shelton warned the audience. “That’s no longer true.”
He said models show that more than 500,000 man-made objects are in orbit today, with U.S. systems tracking “less than” 5 percent. Most of those objects are too small to be picked up by current sensors, but represent potentially catastrophic dangers to satellites.
“We’ve got to get better at debris mitigation, we’ve got to get better at tracking this debris.”
In addition to the risk of accidental damage from space junk, Shelton warned of counterspace technologies from foreign enemies. Those include GPS jamming, laser weapons and kinetic-kill anti-satellite weapons.
“These aren’t just imaginary threats,” Shelton said, mentioning the successful Chinese anti-satellite missile test in 2007. In fact, debris from that 2007 test recently got within 23 meters of a non-maneuverable space craft.
Shelton quickly acknowledged the impact of budget cuts, opening up his speech with a public apology to the audience “on behalf of the federal government that we can’t have everyone here that we would like to have here.
“I think everyone understands the financial situation and why those decisions were taken to not allow people to travel here from the various government agencies, but I have to tell you, personally and professionally, I find this very embarrassing,” Shelton said. “So my apologies, from everyone who would like to be here but couldn’t.”
The budget situation will force the Air Force to make decisions about its space strategy, and while “status quo is an option, but to me, it’s not a very good option,” Shelton said. “I think we’re at a fork in the road. This time that we’re in, to me, absolutely begs for a change.
“I’ll be advocating for space, but there will be lots of other people, just at the Air Force table, advocating for their priorities, as well,” Shelton said. “So it will be a very difficult time over the next few years here as we decide what our new priorities are with reduced budgets, what our new strategies are across the Department of Defense.”
Sequestration Forces Choices
Talking to reporters after his speech, Shelton provided some details on the impact of sequestration on his programs. In addition to potential furloughs of up to 14 days for civilian works, Shelton said a third of the receivers used for the space fence program have been put in cold storage for the remainder of the year. That means the eastern part of the United States is no longer covered by the space fence program, which provides surveillance of objects flying over the continental United States.
A radar at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., is capable of countering that loss, Shelton said, but doing so takes that radar out of its regular rotation.
“So there’s some risk we’re taking here, but it’s prudent risk,” he said.
The USAF is “very close” to being in a position to award a contract for the next version of space fence, Shelton said. But whether it will survive in the budget is unclear.
“The question for the space fence follow-on, the new space fence if you will, is ‘is this a priority investment for the future?’,” Shelton said.
“You kind of run into the misfortune of being at a certain point in the acquisition program when people are really talking about serious budget reductions. So that is one of those programs that is at a point [where] it is not yet on contract, and some serious decisions need to be made in terms of priorities, whether or not that’s a capability we want to invest in for the future.”
Shelton also talked about reductions to the missile warning network. A radar in North Dakota is being reduced to eight hours a day of usage, he said.
Another radar on the Aleutian islands was scheduled to go to quarter power, which would be “adequate” for missile warning but would harm its space surveillance mission. However, it was left at full power because of the rising tensions with North Korea. Leaving that satellite at full power for 2013 will cost $5 million, Shelton said.
“Obviously, the entire Department of Defense, us included, are paying very close attention to the provocations from the North Koreans,” Shelton said.
Despite these challenges, Shelton said sequestration is unlikely to impact a plan to buy bulk launches from the United Launch Alliance, a good sign for the Air Force as it looks for ways to lower launch costs for government satellites.
Shelton also expressed confidence that current contracts would not need to be renegotiated this year. However, if reductions continue past fiscal 2014, “we will be in a place where we have to look at literally every contract.”
Like other top Air Force officials, Shelton described looming budget decisions as a trade-off between readiness and modernization. With the current budget, it is impossible to maintain the ability to mobilize armed forces at a moment’s notice while simultaneously upgrading outdated systems.
“Can we afford to maintain the highest readiness and let the chips fall on the modernization side, or, understanding that we need to invest in the future, put more in the modernization and maybe take some risk in the readiness?” Shelton said. “So, it is literally choosing among your children. It’s a tough choice.”