U.S. Military Space Officials Emphasize Need for Speed

U.S. Military Space Officials Emphasize Need for Speed

By Warren Ferster

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. – A dynamic threat environment and rapidly advancing technology are driving the U.S. military to emphasize speed and agility in acquiring and deploying new space capabilities, said senior U.S. national security officials at an annual space industry conference.

These officials emphasized resilient constellations, composed in many cases of smaller satellites, along with streamlined acquisition approaches that leverage commercial capabilities and practices whenever possible. Rapid prototyping and more risk-taking also are key features of the emerging philosophy.

In an April 17 keynote address, U.S. Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson announced a reorganization of Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center (SMC) in Los Angeles, the service’s procurement shop for space systems, to reduce acquisition cycle times while enhancing innovation.

The new approach plays into the strengths of Ball Aerospace of Boulder, Colo., whose products include satellites, sensors, communications systems, software and analytics.

One example is Hallmark, a U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) program to develop a modular software platform for space situational awareness (SSA). Ball’s Hallmark solution leverages software developed in the commercial sector, and can support a variety of applications, including satellite command and control, according to Steven A. Smith, the company’s vice president and general manager of Systems Engineering Solutions.

“It’s a foundational layer, an architecture that provides a base that everything else plugs into,” Smith said in an interview.  In the case of Hallmark, the “everything else” refers to SSA applications, 11 of which are being developed separately by other contractors under the program, he said.

These include SSA visualization, indications and warning of potential threats, and a menu of options for courses of action to mitigate those threats, Smith said. The program seeks revolutionary tools and technologies for U.S. military operations in space.

Ball’s Hallmark solution could find application at the National Space Defense Center, the joint Air Force-National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) operations center that recently became operational. The NRO, which builds and operates the nation’s spy satellites, works closely with the Air Force on a variety of activities.

“The approach we took for Hallmark is the architecture approach used at Google, Amazon and Netflix which allows them to do continuous development and integration -- so it allows them to go fast,” Smith said. “You can continually put features into the system so that you’re continually enhancing it, fixing it, upgrading it and doing that on a real-time basis.”

He contrasted that development/operations approach, known as “DevOps” in IT parlance, with the more traditional service oriented architecture approach where functions are centralized within a work flow manager via a highly regimented progression of software commands. “With the approach we’ve taken on here, we don’t need an orchestrater, and that really is the heart of an event-driven architecture…it kind of self orchestrates.”

Hallmark is designed for real-time operations, as opposed to after-the-fact analysis, and could be ready for operational use as soon as 2019, Smith said. “It’s agile, it’s modular. You can plug functions in and out on a real-time basis,” he said.

The potential applications for Ball’s Hallmark solution are not limited to SSA. According to Smith, the platform can be used for satellite command and control, and data processing.

One potential opportunity in that regard is a new ground system for the Air Force’s Overhead Persistent Infrared (OPIR) surveillance constellation, whose missions include providing early warning of missile launches against U.S. territory, forces or allies. The Future Operationally Resilient Ground Evolution (FORGE) program represents a shift away from a closed system developed by traditional defense contractors to an open system that can be updated with new technology as it becomes available, according to a January article in Space News, an industry publication.

Ball is known primarily as a satellite and instrument provider, and software also is an important part of the company’s portfolio. “We’ve been doing algorithms for over 30 years,” Smith said. “We’ve been doing IT systems for 13 years, primarily with the National Air and Space Intelligence Center,” which provides intelligence on foreign air and space threats.

Ball’s hardware products, meanwhile, are a natural fit for the Defense Department’s evolving approach to space. The company is an established manufacturer of small and medium-sized satellites, and has embraced commercial practices including fixed price contracts, even for government customers.

Air Force Gen. John Hyten, commander of U.S. Strategic Command, said fixed-priced contracts are an important part of the mix as the Pentagon looks to acquire space capabilities more quickly and at less cost. “When you know what you want to buy and it doesn’t stress the state of the art in industry you ought to buy it fixed price,” Hyten told reporters April 17. “I think in most of the cases that we’re talking about, the technology’s mature enough that you ought to be doing a significant amount of fixed price work.”

The Air Force appears to be putting its money where its mouth is, recently awarding Ball a fixed price contract to develop the Weather System Follow-on – Microwave (WSF-M) satellite and main instrument, along with integration and system software, with options for up to two satellite builds. The program will leverage existing Ball spacecraft and instrument designs, enabling delivery in a relatively short timeframe, said Cory Springer, the company’s director of weather and environment.

“WSF-M is a great opportunity for us to showcase our approach to design reuse and modularity that can deliver on the Air Force’s need for speed and affordability on this important mission,” added Dave Kaufman, vice president and general manager, National Defense at Ball Aerospace.

The Air Force also is planning a WSF-E – the “E” stands for Electro-optical/Infrared – satellite to fill an anticipated gap in cloud characterization. The service has not specified a contract type for this mission – this is being left to the proposers – but it expects to have the satellite under contract in the 2020 time frame, with an anticipated launch date of 2024. This schedule is comparable to that of the WSF-M effort.

In her speech, Wilson noted that the Air Force has been aggressive in leveraging alternative acquisition mechanisms to get capabilities on orbit quickly, but said the service needs to go beyond that by eliminating steps that add time but little value to its normal procurement process. “It’s time to stop circumventing the bureaucracy and start rewiring it,” she said.

Warren Ferster covered the global space industry as a journalist for 25 years, including 21 at SpaceNews, where he last served as editor in chief.