Magazine article National Defense

In Orbit: Military Looks to Small Satellites as Costs for Large Spacecraft Grow

Magazine article National Defense

In Orbit: Military Looks to Small Satellites as Costs for Large Spacecraft Grow

Article excerpt

After some 50 years of launching large, complex, multi-million dollar spacecraft, the military and industry are rethinking the way satellites are built and acquired.


Large satellites aren't going away, experts said at the Space Symposium in Colorado Springs, Colo. But the need for systems that don't take a decade to develop and deliver, and can survive an attack, or be quickly replaced, is driving the trend toward smaller spacecraft. The "operationally responsive space" concept that calls for simpler and faster-to-orbit satellites will be endorsed in an upcoming Defense Department posture review.

Deputy Secretary of Defense William Lynn, while delivering a preview of the long-awaited space posture review at the conference, indicated that the responsive space concept will be a major part of the document.

The ORS program "can help us counter threats to our space capabilities. By building systems on small satellites, using modular components, ORS gives us the ability to rapidly augment our space systems," he said.

The program "can deliver capabilities in less time than it takes to build larger platforms," he added.

The need to field new technologies on time and on budget, and that have a more immediate impact on today's wars have been themes repeated in Defense Secretary Robert Gates' speeches. Congress has also singled out the cumbersome and expensive process of building satellites as a prime example of how major acquisition programs go wrong. Their costs spiraled out of control during the past decade, delivery milestones went unmet and the national security space community's reputation took a hit on Capitol Hill. Last year, Gates cancelled the $26 billion Transformational-Satellite Program, after its schedule had slipped by four years.

In the beginning of the Bush administration, as several military and spy satellite programs were coming in late and over budget, the then director of the newly created office of force transformation, Ret. Vice Adm. Arthur K. Cebrowski, began touting the operationally responsive space concept. The idea called for smaller satellites that could be launched in weeks or months, rather than years or decades, as is the case with larger satellites.

The concept also would require launch systems that could lift off more quickly than current rockets, and less complex spacecraft that could be assembled from off-the-shelf components in a "plug-and-play" fashion depending on the mission requirements. If a large communications satellite were damaged in an attack, for example, a small stopgap replacement could be lofted to provide some services until it was replaced.

The office he led was eventually disbanded, but in 2007, U.S. Strategic Command established the operationally responsive space office at Kirtland Air Force Base, N.M.

It is preparing to launch its first operational spacecraft, the ORS-1, later this year. U.S. Central Command asked the office if it could fill a need for overhead reconnaissance. The exact kind of sensor it required is classified. The ORS office, working through the space development test wing at Kirtland, gave the contract to Goodrich ISR Systems, which had been supplying components to military aerospace programs for 50 years, but had never integrated a satellite before. The goal was to deliver the capability Centcom wanted within two years. So far, it is on track to meet that deadline.

The ORS-1 program will be a bellwether for where the military wants to go with responsive space, said Gen. C. Robert Kehler, Air Force Space Command commander.

"We can decide: How do we go forward? Do we want to go forward with this? Is there sufficient value here?" he told reporters. Combatant commanders are still thinking the concept over. "We are at a point where we can begin to make some informed decisions," he added. "My personal opinion is that there is value in a national strategic capability for the ability to augment or supplement" space missions, he said. …

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