New Approaches Required for Military Satellite Architecture

Air Force Magazine has published an excellent article in their October 2012 edition. Titled “Game Changers in Space,” the piece is based on an address given by General William L. Shelton, head of Air Force Space Command, to the National Space Symposium earlier this year.

In his address General Shelton talked about how new realities are forcing a re-evaluation of the next generation of military satellite constellations:

Gen. William L. Shelton, head of Air Force Space Command, told the National Space Symposium in Colorado Springs, Colo., that some next generation military constellations could well feature small and relatively simple satellites. He said some defense payloads could be sent aloft on commercial spacecraft.

This recalibration, if it continues, could prove to be one of the biggest changes for USAF since it got into satellite work in the 1950s.

The movement reflects two realities. The first is the certainty of a shrinking budget. Experts say the Air Force can no longer afford sufficient numbers of the highly advanced systems and must find alternatives. The second is the undeniable and growing physical threat posed to US orbital vehicles, which are valuable, undefended—and few. Lower-cost systems could provide safety in numbers.”

The specific new approach cited in the story is continuing to explore more use of hosted payloads, in which military payloads are put onto commercial satellites. Hosted payloads could greatly reduce the cost of new satellite assets and assist in what the article refers to as “disaggregation” – protecting military assets in space by dispersing them more broadly.   

The CHIRP program is mentioned as a success story that validates the hosted payload approach. By “hitching a ride” aboard commercial launches, military assets can be deployed very quickly. In fact, the CHIRP program went from initiation to launch in 39 months, unheard of speed in military satellite procurement.

So what’s holding back more hosted payload projects? Intelsat General President Kay Sears has talked about some being in a “hunkered down” state of mind as they grapple with the new budgetary realities. In this article, Retired Lt. General Brian A. Arnold is quoted as saying that the opposition comes from “fear, habit and inertia.”

Time seems to be on the side of change however. The Space and Missile Systems Center (SMC) has established a Hosted Payload office. And the SMC commander, Lt. General Ellen M. Pawlikowski, is quoted as saying:

"My message today is that we see hosted payloads as a key part of our future architectures, and we are this year, in 2012, moving out to have some real directed activities."

Here’s to those efforts leading to more successes like CHIRP in the near future.