It’s called “the vicious circle of space acquisition.”
Large satellite systems take a long time to develop.
As the years stretch on, the temptation to change requirements and add new capabilities is too hard to resist. For once the spacecraft is launched, it’s impossible to swap out the hardware.
Schedules slip. Production lines go cold, increasing the contractors’ costs.
By the time the satellite is sent to orbit, the technology aboard is already generations behind what is available in the commercial marketplace.
This was all described in a 2012 paper co-authored by Lt. Gen. Ellen Pawlikowski, then Air Force Space and Missile Center commander.
“Since the mid-1990s, we have seen some of the longest delivery times for major space systems since the beginning of the space age,” she wrote in “Space: Disruptive Challenges, New Opportunities, and New Strategies” published in Strategic Studies Quarterly.
However, deliveries of new space systems of late have all but come to a halt. The communication satellites being launched now are based on designs dating back to the early 2000s. The last major contract award was in 2008 for the third-generation GPS satellites.
That was also the year the Defense Department canceled the Transformational Satellite Communication System, or T-Sat, a six-year effort to create a next-generation spacecraft that came to naught.
Six years later, there are no new Air Force satellites on the horizon.
The Air Force is in the throes of conducting several studies that service officials say may lead to a radically new space architecture. Meanwhile, as the paper noted, getting space system acquisition right is more important than ever.
The nature of how it is employed by the military has changed over the past dozen years.
The Cold War era was marked by strategic applications such as nuclear command and control, and remote sensing satellites searching for rocket launches and large-scale troop movements.
The wars in Afghanistan and Iraq brought space down to the troop level with GPS, tactical communications and command and control of drones bringing immediate benefits to those who were fighting insurgents.
“Without exaggeration, the combat effects we have come to expect from our smaller, more mobile force structure would not be possible without space capabilities,” wrote Pawlikowski, who has since moved on to become the military deputy at the office of the assistant secretary for Air Force acquisition.