An interesting article recently appeared in Defense News covering challenges facing the Air Force. The challenges are numerous, and the article quotes extensively from former Air Force Chief Scientist Mark Maybury and the current Air Force Chief Scientist Mica Endsley.
One of the biggest challenges highlighted in the piece is the Air Force’s acquisition process:
“The Air Force’s current acquisition process is incapable of producing innovative systems quickly and affordably, the report said. And the increasing complexity of integrating advanced technology into aircraft such as the F-35 will likely further slow the development process in the future. This ‘threaten[s] to erode the current decisive advantage’ the Air Force now enjoys over its adversaries, Maybury said.”
Although this quote focuses on the complexity of integrating advanced technologies into the F-35 jet fighter, it reinforces that the current acquisition process needs to be refined on many levels.
The Air Force’s new openness to using hosted payloads aboard commercial spacecraft is a positive sign of change in how the agency acquires space capacity. The Space and Missile Systems Center (SMC) issued a directive earlier this year regarding Hosted Payload Solutions (HoPS) acquisition, and a RFP has recently been issued.
Hosted payloads provide the most effective means of both creating a state-of-the-art, diverse space architecture and getting capabilities into space quickly at a low cost. Such payloads could be part of virtually all SMC missions, from overhead persistent infrared for the nation’s early missile warnings to communications and weather missions.
As an example, the current assets in space used for weather forecasting are aging and in need of replacement. In fact, according to a recent article in Shephards’ Digital Battlespace, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which provides the Air Force and others with weather data, could be forced to rely on Chinese satellites by the end of the decade. This is due to budget cuts and the challenge of getting new assets into space in a timely manner. The use of hosted payloads could alleviate this problem for NOAA, along with long-term planning between the DoD and the commercial industry, so capacity is available when the need arises.
Hosted payload solutions are extremely viable and cost effective. They can be a big part of the Air Force’s response to the challenges it faces maintaining American space supremacy. We hope that developments like the HoPS RFPs will lead to the Air Force more fully embracing the advantages of hosted payloads, and using commercial launch providers to get vital assets into space faster. It’s an approach that serves the needs of both government and industry — especially when resources are stretched and mission requirements remain high.