Space Reform

Article excerpt

Editorial Abstract:

Leaders responsible for making decisions about space acquisition have recently confronted two critical problems with this process: increases in program costs and schedule slips. Mr. Lee addresses three additional factors that will affect the competitiveness of space acquisition in the information age: accommodating technological change, reducing system complexity, and basing the acquisition process on a plug-and-play strategy.

Space is unforgiving; thousands of good decisions can be undone by a single engineering flaw or workmanship error, and these flaws and errors can result in catastrophe.

-Defense Science Board

THE CURRENT satellite-acquisition process is broken. Space-acquisition decision makers recently made policy changes in the hope of solving two critical problems: increases in program costs and schedule slips. Their primary change accelerated the decision to build, test, and launch the satellite system. Although this change improved management oversight, the process remains flawed and needs overhauling to reduce cost overruns and schedule problems. The current acquisition process could significantly improve by using common satellite components and by addressing the overall process as a "system of systems" featuring a "plug and play" strategy similar to today's personal-computing environment.

In 2003 the Defense Science Board (DSB)/ Air Force Scientific Advisory Board (AFSAB) task force and the General Accounting Office (GAO) published reports critical of the space-acquisition process.1 Both reports expressed concerns about system-cost overruns and schedule slippages, especially in two vital space systems: the advanced extremely high frequency (AEHF) military-communication program and the space-based infrared systems (SBIRS) early-warning satellite program. Combined, both programs are more than $8 billion over budget. Both reports cite several underlying factors for these programmatic issues and provide viable solutions; however, neither confronts the fundamental issue, which mandates a revamped space-acquisition process. The current acquisition method increases program oversight and compresses decision milestones at the beginning of a program, but it does not exploit principal concepts from other information-age technologies. The current initiative to redefine transformation also provides an opportunity to change the process of satellite acquisition.


Operating in space requires highly robust, autonomous systems. Space does not offer the natural protections found within Earth's atmosphere, thus forcing systems to function in extreme-both hot and cold-temperatures while combating greater radiation exposure. Mechanical failures considered minor in terrestrially based equipment can prove catastrophic in space because we cannot service the system hardware. Unfortunately, we must balance both system protection and redundancy with operational capability to meet the constricted weight limits required for space-flight. By way of comparison, the military strategic and tactical relay system (MILSTAR)-our heaviest communication satellite-weighs 10,500 pounds while the F-15E's maximum takeoff weight is 81,000 pounds. Another obstacle to fielding a reliable space system involves minimizing the traditionally high failure rates associated with "bleeding-edge" (the phase beyond "leading-edge") technology developed for many satellite systems.

By its very nature, military satellite communications (MILSATCOM) provide an asymmetric advantage to US military forces and, as with other Department of Defense (DOD) space programs, can benefit from transformation initiatives. Satellite communications also figure prominently in the Quadrennial Defense Review's operational goals as an information-technology backbone for command and control, especially in areas where more traditional infrastructure does not exist (e.g., landlines and line-of-sight communications). …