WASHINGTON — In its fiscal 2016 budget request, the US Air Force sought $2.5 billion in procurement and $1.2 billion for research and development funds just for space programs.
It is a sizeable cost that should meet service the priorities, but for the service. It also comes at a time when the Air Force is trying to figure out its next steps in the space realm.
A former high-ranking Air Force official told Defense News that while the budget covershits the necessities of America's space systems, it also reflects the fact the service is not yet ready to change the way commit to changing how it does business.
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The official referred to it as "a placeholder" budget, one designed to hold the service over until a series of studies on the future of US military space architecture will look like are completed.
"I think we're in a little bit of a wait and see until those studies produce their results," the official said.
One overarching question being inspected in a number of studies is whether to move towards "disaggregation," shifting from a series of very expensive systems to networks of smaller assets. The goal is to simultaneously drive down costs while increasing the resiliency of the system.
Right now, a single $1.5 billion dollar satellite could be taken out of operation by an enemy hack, a missile launch or even just an errant piece of space junk. Under the idealized version of a disaggregated system, the capabilities crammed onto that single system could be spread across multiple systems, so if one satellite went dark that capability would is not be lost to the war fighter down on Earth.
While those studies are still underway, the former official sees signs in the budget that the Air Force is continuing its trend toward disaggregation.
"There's enough money wedged in, to tell you the truth, that we can proceed with a resilient architecture along the lines of what we've talked about for the last two or three years," the former official said. noting that If the department was moving in another direction, the budget trend plot would show increased funding for legacy systems like the Space Based Infrared System or advanced extremely high frequency networks.
"I'm pretty confident they've tipped their hand a little bit in the direction the department is headed, but there is not budget-quality detail coming out of those studies yet," the former official added. "So it's just a wedge there that is there to support where they think the directions are going."
Gen. John Hyten, the head of Air Force Space Command, has expressed an interest in disaggregation, although he cautions that it is "not the be all, end all, to every solution there is."
"We're going to look at a whole bunch of different ways to do business in the future," Hyten told an audience during a December event in Washington. "We're going to try and figure out how to become effective deliverers of capabilities and effects, and we're going to build the right tools as we walk into that. So all the capabilities we have right now are going to change."
As part of that, Hyten added, Space Command has to work with the commercial sector in new ways. One potential area,
Hyten said, could involve reworking how commercial satellite communications are acquired.
"We have purchased the commercial product in the most inefficient way possible," Hyten said. "You're never going to get the best price you can when you buy something on a spot market one year at a time."
That's music to the ears of commercial satellite communications operators, who
have been pushing for years to move toward a model that would feature long-term commitments from the Pentagon, which operators say will drive down costs for both sides.
Skot Butler, vice president
of satellite networks and space services with Intelsat General,
praised Hyten for engaging with industry "in a way we haven't seen before; it is a real two-way dialogue and this is giving us the opportunity to provide some critical input on how they might do things different."
Like the former official, Butler said the Air Force is stuck waiting for studies to come back before it can commit to big changes, but expressed confidence that the service is heading in
a new direction.
He highlighted an analysis of alternatives on wideband networks, which is expected to be complete in 2016, as a study that could potentially prove a game-changer in how his industry works with the Pentagon.
"This is a really critical time period," Butler said. "We're going to do everything we can to make sure that our position, in our case, is on the table and is part of the consideration and the dialogue."
There doesn't appear to be language in the budget
directly related to reworking commercial satcom, but that doesn't mean it's a dead issue.
In response to written questions from the Senate before his confirmation hearing, Ash Carter, the Obama administration's nominee for secretary of defense, pledged to study the commercial satcom issue and "determine if additional opportunities should be pursued."
He also called himself a "staunch advocate for competition across all of the department's acquisition programs," and pledged to support introducing competition into the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) military launch program.
The budget includes five
launches under EELV,
Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) military space launch program,
three of which are marked as competitive awards. The Elon Musk-backed SpaceX is expected to be certified to compete for EELV launches this year, lining them up to take on current launch monopoly holder United Launch Alliance (ULA).
Tory Bruno, the head of ULA, responded to a tweeted question about the budget by replying there were "no big surprises in the budget." Asked if he was excited for ULA to go head-to-head with SpaceX once the latter is certified, Bruno responded, "Absolutely. Already submitted a competitive [military launch]
proposal last year. Looking forward to more."
One area that got a boost in the budget is space situational awareness, which has been a major focus of the Air Force as other nations, including potential adversaries like China, have begun to increasingly populate the orbits around E
In the budget, the Air Force announced plans to speed up the follow-on system to the Space Based Space Surveillance Block 10 satellite, which has a planned expiration date of 2017. The budget also supports the Increment 3 upgrades to the Joint Space Operations Center, the nerve center at the core of US space operations.
"There's progress, particularly in space situational awareness," the former USAF official said, highlighting both of those funding streams. "It's clearly a recognition of threats and space that we're not prepared to deal with like we should be. This is just a matter of getting serious about those threats."