The Space Reviewin association with SpaceNews

The conundrum facing the military space community.

Resilient, disaggregated, and mixed constellations

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We have a conundrum.

The good end of this is that space has a profound effect on the way we fight wars. Space systems provide our warfighters with an asymmetric advantage over adversaries and saves lives. Space enables our warfighters to operate in an effective fashion and to limit non-combatant collateral damage as they engage our adversaries.

That is the good part. So, what is the bad? We simply cannot afford to continue providing these critical capabilities at the price we have been paying.

The current ways of setting requirements and acquiring large and complex Class A systems produce programs that are unwieldy and extremely expensive. These old ways are not working, and the space community desperately needs to find fundamentally different ways of doing its business.

We have heard it from every space leader and at every space conference: our space community is told to “do more with less”. Unfortunately, the catchphrases “do more with less” and even NASA’s “faster, better, cheaper” have lots of baggage and they’ve left failed programs behind in their wake. Programs have never done more with less and they’ve never been faster, better, and cheaper. The problem with these attempts at reducing cost was that they were really about trying to “find efficiencies” in the status quo. These attempts assumed the space industry is ineffective in the way that they do business; as a result, the US government has spent a huge amount of time and money trying to make industrial practices more efficient. This has been done for many years and through many administrations. There have been some savings made in the past, but there is just not much meat left on the bone to save after years and years of searching for efficiencies. Unfortunately, the assumption that our space industry could solve all its program problems with efficiency improvements was like throwing a thimble of water in the ocean. Perhaps a program can reap a few percentage points in savings with efficiency efforts, but more likely not in amounts that can move the needle on the problems and challenges we are facing.

All of these efforts have been hamstrung by the real problem, an acquisition construct that is unaffordable. The current ways of setting requirements and acquiring large and complex Class A systems produce programs that are unwieldy and extremely expensive. These old ways are not working, and the space community desperately needs to find fundamentally different ways of doing its business. Indeed, the current way of doing acquisition is not going to resolve the conundrum, and the mantra “doing more with less” is becoming a new, tortured reality.

All is not lost. To solve problems of affordability, we should consider building alternative innovative space system architectures. Specifically, we should consider architectures based on employment of disaggregated missions, mixed constellations (mixing Class A, B, C, and D developed systems), and mixing in some shorter life systems. Before making such a change, we need to understand how our space community got into this precarious position.

Change is being driven by troubling trends (setting the stage)

First—and this impacts the “why we need” affordability issue in our space industry—is that the rest of our nation is facing a very tough economy. We are experiencing one of those critical times in our nation’s history. Painful unemployment numbers confront us, and our national and state governments have borrowed too much. With the downturn, the money available for the DoD is shrinking and as a result, the aerospace industry that builds systems our warfighters have come to depend upon is going to see significant financial reductions. The industry and its customers have not yet reacted to the reduced fiscal realities of the aerospace industry.

We have not come together to resolve these intractable problems, and, as a result, we are faced with a dilemma. On one hand, we all know that the economy is in a near-disaster condition. On the other, we hear the Department of Defense (DoD) is “underfunded” on a percentage basis. There must be a right level of spending.

The Space Foundation tells us in its latest edition of The Space Report that the United States government spends something on the order of $65 billion a year on space. Governmental spending may not be that high, but one can count about $40–45 billion a year of spending among NASA, NRO, and the Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center’s (SMC’s) accounts, and another $9 billion if you count the Missile Defense Agency (MDA). We use that money to provide for the national defense and to maintain a national technology edge, and that edge is essential to success and providing the advanced space systems needed by our warfighters, allies, and coalition partners. Still, $65 billion is a lot of money, and so is $40 billion, even if circumstances require we bring the number down a bit. We need to figure out a different way to get the space capabilities we need (since what we are currently buying is becoming more and more expensive) for significantly less than what we’ve been spending.

The Space Acquisition Vicious Circle.

The problem: the vicious circle of space acquisition

Well, the aerospace industry can’t do too much about the economy. The reality is the space community does not control the economy, and it cannot singularly implement a fix for it through our programs, nor through our individual efforts. So we must treat the first factor, the economy, as a reality that we must deal with, and not ignore.

The second factor getting us into a situation where our systems are becoming unaffordable is the way in which the DoD plans, programs, budgets, and buys space systems. This process has generated what should be called the “Space Acquisition Vicious Circle”, where each attempt to resolve problems in the acquisition process creates new problems.

So, with the Space Acquisition Vicious Circle, our space systems become more and more complex and expensive, with no room for failure.

Currently, the US government contracts to build and fly only a few space systems, so it needs to get everything it possibly can out of each. That has meant, within current systems architecting approaches, bundling capabilities. With bundling, the government imposes as many requirements as possible onto a single mission. This is called aggregation, and is often used to build stronger cross-mission advocacy.

Unfortunately, aggregation has a number of unintended, but very damaging, consequences:

  • It takes many years to build these highly integrated bundled mission capabilities. With this reality, the US government customer demands that its contractors integrate advanced technology into a developed system, so that it is not totally obsolete when finally deployed. Unfortunately, try as they might, the resulting long schedule adds obsolescence along with technology and schedule risk to a system that is ultimately launched.
  • The resulting high cost and risk minimizes the number of new program starts. The circular thinking behind this is if the US government cannot afford to approve many new starts, program planners, in an honest attempt to get the warfighters the space capabilities they need, think they should structure scarce, new programs to get everything out of them that can be funded.
  • As users demand more and as a result of the previous step, acquirers design more and more complex systems to meet a greater number of aggregated requirements. This has the unfortunate consequence of generating complex and expensive sets of technical requirements for space acquisition efforts. Sometimes these requirements are at cross purposes (e.g., precision navigation and timing systems with nuclear detection capability). As a result, very complicated payloads are proposed, and they turn out to be very expensive and high risk to build and operate.
  • Another unintended consequence is the resulting satellite systems are heavy, complex, and expensive to develop and operate. Spare satellites for such systems are unaffordable. With no spares, the acquirers must significantly increase system reliability, again increasing overall program cost. That means the system must be designed to work the first time, every time. It also means intense and expensive reviews of every developmental step, and even more extensive testing to be sure everything is very reliable and meets the multiple (and sometimes incompatible) requirements. That then drives cost and schedule. As the system becomes more expensive, less tolerance for risk is allowed. The system becomes too big to fail. So this leads to even more program reviews, senior service reviews, independent reviews, testing, and expense—and the vicious circle continues.
  • Since this acquisition approach of buying aggregated satellites is expensive, funding needed to develop robust ground systems just like the funding for sparing is equally complex, and unaffordable.
  • Ultimately, we are left with satellite systems that are very expensive and with heavy payloads, long development cycles, and no spares. Unfortunately, with no spares, programs cannot afford a launch failure. This all demands 100 percent launch success rates, which are also impossible to achieve. This in turn results in very expensive, risk averse, and expensive launch processing. The concern about risk drives demands for extensive launch reviews, both developer and programmatic, along with independent reviews. Launch affordability calls for fewer satellite systems, which results in a lower launch rate. As launch rate is the single biggest driver in the cost of launch, this now compounds our launch affordability problem. With very low launch rates we get expensive launches, or we get expensive launches because our rate is low. As launches become more and more expensive, the US government is compelled to reduce their number, which means we can only launch a select few important payloads. As launch costs are driven up, resistance rises to increasing the launch rate or using our launch vehicles by other agencies or commercial satellite builders. Finally, as costs skyrocket, we can’t afford to launch a wide variety of missions.

So, with the Space Acquisition Vicious Circle, our space systems become more and more complex and expensive, with no room for failure. This Circle cannot be exited easily. Many are quick to point the fingers of blame for these failures, somehow thinking that these problems exist and the people implementing them are complicit and do not want to change their way of doing business due to stubbornness, and that all we have to do is change that thinking and that will solve the Circle’s problems. Of course, if this were really so, the Vicious Circle would have been fixed a long time ago.

Given the affordability problems, something bold has to be done. We owe our warfighters the best systems we can provide. And the answer to all mission areas cannot be to encourage the US government to just buy off the shelf systems with minimum modification from generation to generation. Many needed military space capabilities do not have a commercial analog to drive technology development. Instead, we need resilient, adaptable, agile, and affordable approaches that will enable us to survive and operate in an increasingly hostile environment. We must truly do something fundamentally different than what we have been doing, to transcend the challenges of the Vicious Circle. Sadly, this need for action has encountered widespread denial and blame within government and industry circles. This is unfortunate since we simply cannot afford to continue to obtain these critical capabilities at the price we have been paying and suffer the delayed schedules resulting from developing highly complex/integrated systems.

Given the warfighter need, cutting back on systems and capabilities is just not a viable answer. A better solution would be to change systems architectures in such a way to deliver needed capability and achieve improved space acquisition solutions by taking some acceptable, measured risk.

Mixed constellations> combine extremely capable and exquisite flagship-class systems we are currently building with less capable/shorter life/targeted capability Class B, C, and D payloads that can accomplish a significant portion, if not all, of the requirements.

Fortunately, our senior space leaders spotted the threat affordability problems present and have spoken frequently about the need to move forward and get out of this predicament. In looking at the threads of their public and private comments it is clear they understand the unrelenting pressures placed on the acquisition, deployment, and operation of space missions. They recognize that our space community faces tremendous competition on budget priorities, all while our young troops and society are more dependent on, and demand more and more capabilities provided from space.

Building on what our senior leadership has described and putting a little more detail on how to accomplish this, along with some advantages, there are three changes that can be proposed as to how we should conduct our space business:

  • The US government should selectively deploy disaggregated solutions (of course, this should be employed only on a mission by mission basis, where it makes sense) including using mixed constellations as an architectural approach to assuring cost effective resilience
  • The US government should tolerate and balance more acquisition, technology, and customer risks on selected missions or sub-missions by using Class B, C, D systems development approaches on selected missions (not all missions make sense to go to Class B, C, or D, nor should all missions become Class A as they have been in the past)
  • The US government should reduce mission lifetime requirements, as many advantages can accrue.

So, what would this mean?

Many believe the application of disaggregation combined with mixed constellations, is a smart approach to the challenges we face. Consideration of such architectures has been endorsed by present and former Air Force Space Command (AFSPC) and US Strategic Command (USSTRATCOM) commanders, Generals Kehler, Chilton, and Shelton. But what is meant by “disaggregated” and “mixed constellations”?

Disaggregation is the concept of splitting the missions into larger numbers of smaller and more consistent missions/satellites with achievable requirements. This strategy presents a good opportunity to confront and reduce overall acquisition costs, and simplify acquisition rules and strategies.

Mixed constellations combine extremely capable and exquisite flagship-class systems we are currently building, with less capable/shorter life/targeted capability Class B, C, and D payloads that can accomplish a significant portion, if not all, of the requirements. This in turn allows simplifying the flagship systems, and reduces the cost to provide the exquisite capabilities.

Mixed constellations present a number of other valuable benefits:

  • Distributed architectures are more effective against failures and active and passive attacks, increasing resilience.
  • They provide multiple and independent phenomenology to threats. Distributed constellations provide the opportunity to have block upgrades rapidly responding to evolving threats.
  • They create opportunities to assure technology insertion. We can take more chances on technologies with the lower cost, higher risk tolerant systems. Such systems could serve as technology pathfinders for the next generation.
  • They incerase the number of launches to improve the launch industrial base and bring down costs.
  • They sustain the industrial base by providing more frequent and more predictable systems being developed and launched.
Two powerful tools can be used to enable disaggregation, mixed constellations, and shorter life systems.

While aggregating missions and creating highly integrated and expensive satellites heretofore has been done in good faith, and by those who thought aggregating would help both program advocacy and lower costs, the actual result (in terms of cost) was the opposite. Program complexity, increased technology and schedule risks, and the resulting costs have gone through the roof. We were never able to reliably predict the real costs resulting from increased complexity or state the reason for such assertions. If we disaggregate, however, we can simplify entire space segments, and produce and operate simpler satellites. This should help reduce technical complexity and shorten the lengthy development cycles. In turn, this should improve industry production rates and mission survivability through a greater volume of systems.

Shorter lifetimes provide more consistent, predictable, and stable production lines and significantly simplify systems. We can then look to leverage the use of shorter system lifetimes. On its face this sounds strange, but, shorter lifetimes:

  • Encourage more rapid and affordable technology insertion.
  • Enable the ability to accept lower launch reliabilities while increasing the number of launches (lowering launch costs).
  • Increase the numbers of systems on-orbit along with reducing the complexities, allowing increases in the number of systems on orbit, and therefore adding to the overall survivability of the mission.
  • Give industry more systems to build. Expanding satellite production should increase industry effectiveness, worker vitality, improve workload predictability, achieve economies of scale to further reduce development costs.

Two powerful tools can be used to enable disaggregation, mixed constellations, and shorter life systems. They are the use of Class B, C, and D developments and of commercial buses.

page 2: Class B, C, D development >>