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In Space, Doing More With Less Much Scarier Than Budget Cuts

Posted by Bob Butterworth on

We hope professional staff at the House Armed Services Committee, as well as their colleagues on SASC, HAC-D and SAC-D, will read this commentary by the respected space and intelligence expert, Bob Butterworth, before Thursday’s HASC hearing on national security space. I spent much of my five years at Space News covering the enormous problems caused the last time America tried to save lots of money on space hardware and operations. Butterworth argues here that, essentially, we blew it after the last defense downturn when we tried to do more with less in space. Read on.

The scariest part of the projected budget for national security space is not the cuts. It is the ensuing proposals that promise ways to do more with less. Adopting them without close and careful analysis can easily bring on far more damage to national security space capabilities than the cuts ever will.

We’ve seen this movie before. Budgets for national security space headed south soon after the Cold War ended and the Soviet Union dissolved. By 1994 it was obvious that the Defense Department was not going to be able to recapitalize the constellation then in orbit, let alone pay for modernizing and expanding it. Brig. Gen. Roger DeKok, then director of requirements for Air Force Space Command, convened a large study group in Colorado Springs to determine what needed to be done to “Re-Invent Military Space.”

For several weeks our group admired the problem, and then, with but a few days left, turned to possible solutions. We proudly identified three that would allow the government to do more with less:

• go commercial-use commercial processes in place of government ones wherever possible; partner with and buy more from commercial space industry;
• become a smarter buyer-make satellite acquisition quicker and more efficient by specifying performance goals instead of designs and depending on commercial practices wherever possible;
• use allies-lean more on the space programs of allies and partners.

How did that work out? A few examples tell the tale, and they don’t have happy endings. Work with the commercial world led to the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) program, conceived originally to be principally a commercial activity in a competitive market available to the government on an average or even a marginal cost basis. That hope was based on the the plans of several companies intending to launch large numbers of satellites to provide telephone service from constellations in low and medium earth orbits. But those plans quickly turned into applications for Chapter 11 protections, and the new EELV program, moving more slowly but without fear of termination, became today’s government-created monopoly, selling only to the government and providing launches for which the government has no alternative provider. And yes, they are expensive–four launches account for nearly a quarter of the unclassified Air Force space budget for next year.

How about the “smarter buyer” effort? The hopes for effective industrial partnership were relevant here, too. The maturity of the space business argued against the need for the government to supervise industry practices in detail. By replacing “oversight” with “insight,” the government could save its personnel and other management costs and perhaps even development costs, by reducing the time required to get new satellites launched. Just like a savvy consumer, the government would specify what it wanted and depend on a commercial supplier to provide it.

The new approach to acquisition was called Total System Performance Responsibility (TSPR)-the prime contractor would be responsible for the program and relieved of much of the government’s oversight, and the government could shrink its acquisition workforce. Both the National Reconnaissance Office and the Defense Department started developing two major new programs using TSPR: FIA (Future Imagery Architecture) and SBIRS (Space-Based InfraRed System), both of which failed to meet cost, schedule, and performance to a degree that one hopes will never again be equaled. By 2002 TSPR was roundly damned, and recovery from it is still not complete, at a cost that surely dwarfed any initial “savings” the government might have expected.

The third initiative, leaning on allies, played out more happily, in that it did not lead directly to steeply increased costs and long-deferred capabilities, or not immediately, at least. In terms of cooperation, it simply led nowhere, stymied by myriad issues of sovereignty, authority, strategy, priority, capability, commercial advantage, and, above all, security. The task at hand, after all, is cooperation in military space: warfighting (Title 10) not intelligence sharing (Title 50). But whatever the title, government policy served to impede international cooperation, denying US companies access to the ripe post-Soviet international market for earth monitoring satellites and even preventing the government’s access to foreign commercial imagery in which a US company was deeply involved (Orbital Sciences and the Canadian Radarsat).

None of these ideas about commercial practices, reduced government oversight, and teaming arrangements with allies was invented by the 1994 study group. Similar notions had been part of continuing discussions about space policy; they were mentioned in the 1990 Augustine Committee Report on NASA, the 1992 Fink Committee report on the industrial base, and the 1992 Wilkening assessment of national space policy, for example. But their prospects for being implemented as governing policy rose sharply when budget declines became serious.

Today budgets for national security space are again expected to decline seriously, and there are several “do more with less” schemes vying to become government policy. Leaning on allies and partners is the one that appears at present to have the best legs, and this time it seems by far the most worrisome. It aims to enmesh critical national security capabilities in arrangements with foreign governments, arrangements that cannot help but constrain US freedom of action involving systems that are today under unilateral US control, and that will be virtually impossible to reverse.

The heart of the current notion is to share responsibility for acquiring national security space systems, which notionally would allow the US to buy only “core” capabilities while allies and partners would buy the “non-core” capabilities that currently make the US budget too high. It is not clear just what “core” capabilities might be. For communications satellites, “sharing” occurs when Australia buys a fifth WGS satellite. For GPS, the core is apparently some part (say 15 satellites); in a presentation last year at CSIS, Air Force Secretary Donley and then-Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Cartwright suggested retreating from today’s full GPS constellation in favor of interoperability with Europe’s Galileo system (soon to be launched, as it has been for at least ten years) and China’s Beidou system, arguing that doing so could save money and increase security for the US.

Ongoing efforts to increase sharing extend also to space situational awareness, as the military work toward creating a Combined Space Operations Center (or “Concept,” as is preferred by those trying to formulate how the notion might be put into practice). Certainly Strategic Command’s warnings of potential conjunctions and collisions are welcomed worldwide, and most users hope they can be improved. But Cartwright made clear (again at the CSIS event) that the Center is intended to do much more. The goal is to create an international body to control space operations, akin to the Federal Aviation Administration’s authorities over US airspace.

But wait, as the TV hucksters say, there’s more! “I am convinced that the need for [international cooperation] in military space is more pressing than ever,” then-Deputy Secretary Lynn told a STRATCOM gathering in November 2010. “With some exceptions, we have not fully embraced partners in the design or operation of military space systems, or fully extended to allies the battlefield advantages space systems provide. We will now.” Maybe we will; but we have only the slightest coordination in R&D agendas between our the Pentagon and NASA research laboratories, and interoperability has been a chronic challenge for coalition operations, even for the 65-year-old North Atlantic alliance’s conventional operations.

Even if Lynn is right about the need for cooperation, these aspirations need to be scrutinized analytically and empirically before being adopted as guides for policy. They rest on a host of implicit assumptions, such as:

• the US has acquired more and better space systems than it actually needs;
• others can provide system to meet the real needs of the US, including considerations of availability, revisit time, command and control, field of view, resolution, mission assurance, and data format, cheaper than that US itself can;
• neither the allies nor the US will have legal or political problems with allies providing, operating, and controlling an integral part of the US war-making capability; and
• the cost of making whatever adjustments will be required, such as developing and fielding GPS receivers compatible with signals from different constellations, will be lower than the expense of maintaining today’s constellations.

The current National Space Policy, published in 2010, is clear: “The Secretary of Defense and the Director of National Intelligence, in consultation with other appropriate heads of departments and agencies, shall: Develop, acquire, and operate space systems and supporting information systems and networks to support U.S. national security and enable defense and intelligence operations during times of peace, crisis, and conflict….” The manifest intent of the policy is to assure the preservation of America’s ability to take action to meet national security needs as the US perceives them.

Let’s make sure that in pursuing cooperative, collaborative, and collective activities our perceptions are as clear as possible.

Bob Butterworth, a member of the AOL Board of Contributors, is a consultant and expert on intelligence, especially spy satellites and the policies governing them. He is former senior advisor to the leader of Space Command.

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