NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. — As the U.S. Air Force considers moving to a Century Series-style process for building its next fighter jet, with new designs constantly being produced, the service’s Space and Missile Systems Center has a process already underway for building satellites.
Lt. Gen. John Thompson, the commander at SMC, said his goal is to get satellites from conception to orbit in three to four years, as opposed to what he sees as a more standard six year timeframe. And to get to that point, he said, those new systems need to be designed to have shorter lifespans.
“Our goal going into the future is to get more on a three to four year cycle for our satellites, not just in production, but also in terms of their amount of usable time on orbit,” Thompson said during the Air Force Association’s annual conference Wednesday.
“We’re not trying to build super exquisite satellites anymore that will last 20 or 25 years on orbit. I think we’re more positioned now to emphasize programs that deliver faster capability that the war fighter needs, but don’t need to last a generation on orbit; perhaps [they] are only viable on orbit for four, five or maybe as much as eight years.”
Shrinking those timelines is part of a plan known as “continuous production ability,” according to Col. Dennis Bythewood, program executive for space development at SMC.
A key component is building a common ground system as a “solid foundation,” Bythewood said. After that, it’s about keeping new technologies developing concurrent with production of the satellites.
“It is hard to move fast if you haven’t done the underlying prototyping technology development that allows those systems to go forward," he said.
In the case of the next generation missile warning constellation, formally known as the Overhead Persistent Infrared Infrared system, development shrunk from what would have been 108 months into the five-year timeline. That was doable in part, because of the work done on focal plane development.
“I think you’ll consistently see that,” Blythewood said. “By doing the front end work, that allows us to move fast once we’ve got those things done… we can take a sensor being developed by [Air Force Research Lab], through work with DARPA, through work with international partners, and bring those into the architecture. Those are the types of things we can move relatively fast on while continuing to work all of that modernization underneath.”
The other aspect to the plan, said Cordell DeLaPena, program executive for space production, is driving commonalities among future space systems.
“If we can have a common bus and have an open architecture and find all the interfaces, the intent is very similar to the airplane world where capabilities like a new payload could be rapidly inserted into open architecture,” DeLaPena said. “In order to do that we have to develop a common bus, common processes, and then we also are going to drive commonality all the way down to the part level in which, for a common mission, we will certify the parts, certify common process to reduce the time in production.”
Aaron Mehta was deputy editor and senior Pentagon correspondent for Defense News, covering policy, strategy and acquisition at the highest levels of the Defense Department and its international partners.