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General Sees Need To Develop New, Lower-Cost Lifter, Plus Sats Protection Plan

By | November 19, 2007

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      The United States needs to develop a new lower-cost satellite launcher, Lt. Gen. Michael A. Hamel, commander of the Space and Missile Systems Center in the Air Force Space Command, said.

      That new rocket would have a reusable first stage, and an expendable upper stage, Hamel said in a telephone news briefing with journalists.

      Currently, the government buys launch services from United Launch Alliance, a joint venture that Delta rocket maker The Boeing Co. [BA] and Atlas rocket maker Lockheed Martin Corp. [LMT] formed a year ago.

      On the one hand, Hamel lauded the expendable launch vehicles, the Deltas and Atlases, for their formidable record of 54 consecutive successful major space launches.

      On the other hand, he said, those huge rockets are "very expensive," because they are fully expendable, citing as well a "fragile" launch industry.

      To resolve that, he said, a new lifter should be developed that would have "a reusable first stage," which would accelerate the vehicle to Mach 6 or 7 before the expendable upper stage ignites.

      Being able to reuse the first stage would cut costs.

      It wouldn’t take an enormous development effort to create such a new rocket, Hamel said, adding that some items would be available off the shelf. The technology already is in hand, developed in the space program in the 1960s. Therefore, bringing a new rocket to the fore would be merely an engineering problem, not a technology invention effort.

      Developing a new rocket would consume about five to six years to get to the first demonstrator rocket, after receiving funding, he said. But that is a key catch. He noted that "these are very tough budgetary times." He said that this wouldn’t appear as a budget item until the fiscal year ending Sept. 30, 2010.

      The goal would be to produce a lifter that would continue the virtues in the Atlas and Delta lifters of being routine and reliable assets, while adding in affordability.

      Hamel also covered a number of other critical topics, including a half-year delay in launching an Advanced Extremely High Frequency I satellite to fall next year, from an earlier-hoped-for springtime liftoff.

      The general declined to say who is responsible for the delay, terming it a "very complicated … extraordinarily complex" program. "I wouldn’t point the finger at any one place," he said.

      He also commented on Chinese capabilities to demolish U.S. military and civilian satellites, and on consequences that will arise from funding decisions of a conference committee that resolved differences between House and Senate versions of the defense appropriations bill for the current fiscal 2008.

      On the threat to satellites, he noted that China performed an anti-satellite (ASAT) test.

      That test, in January, saw China fire a ground based missile to collide with and demolish an aging Chinese weather satellite, proving that Sino military forces now possess the capability to eliminate U.S. military and civilian satellites at will.

      The U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission just reported to Congress that this is a disturbing development, a threat to U.S. assets, and Hamel was asked whether this situation that the commission cited concerns him.

      That ASAT shot, he said, has "focused" the attention of senior U.S. military leaders.

      American military forces for some time have held an asymmetric advantage over other forces, thanks to cutting-edge communications, surveillance and other systems that incorporate satellite links.

      But now those space assets are at risk of being hit in ASAT tests. Hamel said U.S. space vehicles "represent a very lucrative target for others." While space systems are a strength of U.S. forces, they also represent an Achilles heel that enemies may exploit, he warned.

      He also sees threats to non-space components of space systems, citing "physical vulnerabilities" such as control sites and user equipment, and dangers from enemies jamming satellite links.

      "The Chinese have demonstrated one capability," he said. "But we also know that there are potential threats out there. All the way from jamming of user and control links, to physical vulnerabilities of control sites or user equipment and the rest of that. But we’re trying to take a very balanced look at, and to have the best possible intelligence as to what the kind of emerging threats are, and then to make sure that across our programs–whether that be in our ground stations, our control links or actually our satellites on orbit–that we can have current situational awareness, that we can actually detect threats or disruptions, and then be able to take responsive actions … to protect those capabilities."

      Thus Pentagon leaders are examining vulnerabilities to U.S. space systems, mulling ways to counter those threats, he said.

      The United States needs to have "current situational awareness" in space, including the ability to detect threats and take countermeasures, he indicated.

      "Our dependence on space [assets such as satellites for myriad military uses] makes clear" that there is an imperative to protect those assets, he said.

      U.S. leaders must "make sure that … we can have current situational awareness, that we can actually detect threats or disruptions and then take responsive actions … to protect those capabilities," he said.

      To that end, he said, "space situational awareness" must be accorded "the highest priority."

      Hamel also was asked what effect some funding cuts might have, such as reductions in the GPS III global positioning system program.

      "We are looking at that right now," he said. GPS III will be needed to replace and continue the capabilities of earlier GPS systems, he said.

      "We are very much concerned" by budget reductions, he said, because GPS capabilities constitute "a critical need to have" sustained. The worry is that funding reductions might affect plans for a late 2013 kick-off. "Any kind of delay would put at risk" the ability to continue providing GPS services, he said.

      Hamel also said the United States must be able to counter enemy cyber space attacks on military and civilian information technology assets.

      The commission report cited China as forming immense cadres of computer hackers who could swiftly wreck havoc on U.S. computer and communications systems.

      "Clearly there are adversaries, there are those competitors that could be using space in ways which threatens either our forces on the battlefield or our space capabilities [that] even our society is dependent upon," he said.

      Therefore, "we need to be prepared that when others are using space in ways that threaten our vital interests, that we can deny them" the ability to attack U.S. assets "in a most proportionate way. That’s something we are looking at."

      On the Space-Based Infrared Systems, or SBIRS, Hamel said he couldn’t respond to rumors that it will take $1 billion to fix some software problems.

      "We don’t have that yet refined," Hamel said. "We currently anticipate at the end of the month briefing" John Young, undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology and logistics. "We’ll hopefully have settled out very shortly here exactly what the total impact is. I can’t tell you a number right now."

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