Latest News

Air Force Space Command Warns Security Risks from Further Sequestration

By | July 24, 2014
      Shelton Sequester Atlantic

      Gen. William L. Shelton, Commander of Air Force Space Command speaking at the Atlantic Council. Photo: Screen Capture from Atlantic Council

      [Via Satellite 07-24-2014] The U.S. Air Force Space Command (AFSPC) does not have a clear way of enduring another round of sequestration, Gen. William Shelton said Tuesday at the Atlantic Council. With budgets remaining tight, the general insisted that the challenges faced by AFSPC differ in ways that make sustaining more cuts next to impossible.

      “Law of the land is still sequestration for FY16 and beyond. Should Congress decide to not grant relief, I don’t know how my command can absorb the mandated reductions,” said Shelton.

      Shelton said AFSPC managed to cut close to $1 billion in costs during FY13 and FY14 to meet the requirements mandated by the sequester last year. These savings came from reducing space surveillance assets, scaling back redundancy measures at launch sites and cutting funding allocated to headquarters and contractors. But past these measures, Shelton said there is little room to sustain further budget cuts as what has already been done substantially reduced Air Force capability.

      “Unlike other forces, you simply can’t save money by putting satellites we fly in some stand-down sort of state. The same holds true for ground-based sensors we operate. They all must be operated 24/7. There just aren’t operational tempo-lowering-cost saving options,” he said.

      Shelton pointed to the Advanced Extremely High Frequency (AEHF) satellite system as an example. With four satellites in orbit, if anything were to happen to just one, it would immediately correlate to a lack of ability for the U.S. military. In addition to making budget cuts impractical, this presents a security risk. Shelton mentioned the reliability of United Launch Alliance vehicles as essential to keeping the Air Force on schedule, as room for failure has not been budgeted.

      To compensate for both the problems associated with the sequester and the security risk from having such taut satellite systems, Shelton said the Air Force has several studies underway, the results of which will be confirmed next year. A top consideration is disaggregating satellite payloads and other assets so that, should one suffer a failure or attack, the damage would be mitigated.

      “On that [AEHF] satellite we have both strategic and tactical packages. What if we separated these payloads into two or maybe three satellites to become much more resilient?” said Shelton.

      Other measures include partnering with other nations on satellite systems. The U.S. has partnered with half a dozen nations on the Wideband Global Satcom (WGS) satellites and is exploring including more nations. Regarding Information, Security and Reconnaissance (ISR) capacity needs over the Asia-Pacific, Shelton doubted the ability of commercial satellite communications (comsatcom) to be sufficient. Though comsatcom is being considered, it is not viewed as the solution. “There’s really not that much capacity, and so we are actively looking at that with commercial satellite providers as well,” he said. “But if you were to look right now at what’s available for us to surge or even have a steady state capability, there’s just not that much there.”

      In planning new space-based assets, Shelton said hosted payloads and smaller satellites are part of the planned approach. These carry potential cost-saving benefits from reducing the complexity of certain satellite systems. Hosted payloads and smaller satellites also benefit from lower launch costs. Shelton said the Air Force must soon decide on long-term constellation plans so that they can begin building assets to use when they are needed.

      “I believe we need less complexity and much more flexibility in our constellations, and we’ve got to make decisions soon on our longer-term approaches. Our need-date is the mid-2020s for replacements to the current satellite programs … with long budget and development timelines, we are looking at decisions in the FY17 program which works through the Pentagon next year,” he said.