‘Careless’ budget cut threatens critical debris tracking system, Air Force space chief says

Gen. William Shelton says some costs for space activities are unsustainable and the service is working to bring them down. But he implored "congressional tea...

With Defense budgets on their way down, the Air Force’s top officer for space says his service has to find more cost-effective ways to maintain the global military capabilities it delivers in the space domain.

The Air Force is trying to do that through approaches like revamping its acquisition processes for space and cyberspace capabilities, encouraging new commercial entrants into the space launch market and placing more of its payloads on commercially-owned vehicles, said Gen. William Shelton.

But it doesn’t help matters when Congress cuts funding for programs that are succeeding, Shelton said.

He pointed to funding for the Air Force’s new Joint Space Operations Management System (JMS) as an example of what he views as “careless marks” by Congress. JMS is designed to boost the military’s capability to track objects in earth’s orbit that could pose a hazard to vital satellites and other spacecraft like the International Space Station. Right now, the Air Force tracks 22,000 such objects and believes there are thousands more it can’t see with its current instruments. In addition, the volume of space debris is expected to grow four-or-five fold in the next couple of decades.

But Shelton said the current system for space situational awareness, the Space Defense Operations Center (SPADOC), ought to qualify for antique license plates. The mainframe system’s last major software upgrade was in 1994.

“And the data format in this system is IBM 80-column punchcards,” Shelton told an Air Force Association breakfast meeting Wednesday. “I did my masters’ thesis on punch cards, but that was a long time ago.”

Gen. William Shelton, commander, Air Force Space Command

Shelton said the system is long overdue for replacement, but JMS was threatened with a major funding reduction by lawmakers who were concerned about past cost overruns in the program and deemed its funds “excess to need.”

Response to GAO report

Lawmakers appear to have been responding to a rocky history with space acquisition in DoD. A 2011 report from the Government Accountability Office pointed to cost and schedule overruns that were rooted in systemic problems the plagued most of the department’s space acquisition programs over the past decade. GAO found the Pentagon had failed to deliver promised space situational awareness capabilities for the five previous fiscal years, and that JMS and other space programs were using immature technologies and risky large-increment acquisition strategies.

But Shelton insisted the problems were fixed by the time the funding cuts came.

“We overhauled this program, we cut the costs, we’ll field new capabilities years earlier, and it’s put us on a very healthy path toward long-term success. So as a reward for that good work, one committee rescinded $40 million based on outdated information,” Shelton said. “Although this was not yet law, we had to prudently plan for this reduction as a reality. The loss of this money, which, by the way is 50 percent of the annual budget, could delay the retirement of that old SPADOC system by a full year. That increases our costs and it also increases our risk because of our outdated capability that is well past its intended life and depends, literally, on eBay maintenance.”

Congress still hasn’t passed appropriations or DoD authorization bills for the current fiscal year, so it’s unclear how the program would ultimately fare in 2013.

Shelton warns against ‘careless’ cuts

Shelton implored what he called “congressional teammates” not to make those “careless” cuts to space programs in the future. He said even though the overall military is shrinking in size and in budget, the nation can’t afford to scale back its space capabilities.

“If we’re going to retain global response capabilities, space really doesn’t scale well with force-structure reductions. You either retain sufficient global coverage or you don’t,” he said. “You can’t have holes in the architecture and still be able to respond worldwide to any contingencies that might pop up. This creates additional tension in the system right now in the midst of this fiscal climate.”

Shelton said the tension comes in part from the fact that current cost structures for building and launching space capabilities are simply unsustainable, so the Air Force knows it has to cut costs in some of the same ways it did with the debris tracking system.

JMS was originally expected to cost $1.2 billion and not be ready until 2019. The restructured program though is projected to cost half that, and it should be up and running by 2014, Shelton said. He said the key to those cost and schedule improvements was building the restructured program around an open architecture.

“We actually had the advantage of having several pilot programs coming out of laboratories, and as we started looking for alternatives to the big program, we said, ‘We can take that one and combine it with that one,'” he said. “So if you create an open architecture you can make progress in a big hurry. You can bring things in and if you like them, keep them, if you don’t like them, throw them away and get the next best thing that rolls in. That’s really how we did business here. And I believe a lot of software acquisitions are moving to that plug-and-play model. I believe that’s the wave of the future here.”

Shelton said the open architecture also will let the military start using the tracking information commercial satellite companies already maintain for their own satellites, allowing the Air Force to focus its sensors on other space objects: objects it expects to dramatically increase in number as more nations begin to make greater use of space.

“We’re also concerned though about the orbital debris population, which could spiral out of control due to accidental collisions or deliberate, irresponsible actions,” he said. “As exhibits, the Chinese [anti-satellite] test of 2007 and the Kosmos-Iridium collision of 2009 both produced thousands of pieces of debris, and many of these pieces are too small to track. A Russian Briz-M upper stage malfunctioned a few months back, leaving it on orbit with thousands of pounds of propellant still on board. And as expected, it recently exploded. We’re tracking well over 500 pieces from that, and from our models we know there are many more pieces we’re not tracking. Debris will ultimately challenge our satellites and manned space activity for many, many years to come.”


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