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In contemplating war in space, Air Force looks to nimble private contractors

April 9, 2017 Updated: April 9, 2017 at 8:24 pm
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photo - A new feature at this year's Space Symposium in Colorado Springs was the towering Blue Origin New Shephard booster display outside Broadmoor Hall. Symposium attendee Michelle Watts climbed Monday, April 3, 2017, into a mockup of the crew capsule Blue Origin is building for planned passenger flights to suborbital space. Photo by Mark Reis, The Gazette
A new feature at this year's Space Symposium in Colorado Springs was the towering Blue Origin New Shephard booster display outside Broadmoor Hall. Symposium attendee Michelle Watts climbed Monday, April 3, 2017, into a mockup of the crew capsule Blue Origin is building for planned passenger flights to suborbital space. Photo by Mark Reis, The Gazette 

Reusable rockets built by nimble startup space companies are just one piece of a wider change being embraced by Air Force leaders who want to change how the service approaches its missions in orbit.

Air Force Space Command's Gen. Jay Raymond summed up the shifts quickly last week at the Space Symposium at the Broadmoor.

"I really see a need to go fast," he said. "We are developing ways to go fast."

Moving rapidly toward change is not something Space Command has been known for in its 35-year existence. Satellite programs have been slow, with years of development preceding every launch. Rockets have been slow, too - one three-year program still hasn't come up with an American motor to replace a Russian rocket engine now in use.

But it seems like the command is hitting the gas pedal lately, with the Air Force in the past year moving away from blue chip defense contractors to launch satellites with Elon Musk's SpaceX and its growing relationship with small Colorado Springs contractors like Braxton Technologies.

The acceleration comes with a great deal of fear in the upper echelons of the Pentagon where leaders have realized that America's long-held advantage in space is slipping.

With rivals boosting their anti-satellite programs and other means to thwart U.S. efforts in orbit, leaders say that attacks on satellites are a likely reality in the next conflict.

"You've heard it a lot this week, that there's no such thing as a space war," said Lt. Gen. Dave Buck who heads the space-aimed 14th Air Force in California. "It's just war."

But the threat of war could lead to a sizable boost in Air Force Space spending and has already led the service to cut red tape for small businesses offering new ideas to quell the possible storm.

After peaking 30 years ago with more than $10 billion in annual spending on satellites and rockets, the Air Force this year plans to spend $5.5 billion. But leaders see space spending heading higher.

"Now we need to get those warfighters the tools and the processes necessary for war," Buck said.

Those tools include tougher training for airmen flying satellites, new rockets that can head to space and land back on earth for quick reuse. Leaders are also talking about smaller, Swiss Army Knife-style satellites with multiple capabilities that can be quickly rocketed to the heavens to replace bigger satellites damaged in war.

Other initiatives include an unprecedented partnership with industry to handle day-to-day satellite operations.

Raymond said he's even mulling putting military payloads on civilian satellites to make it harder for enemies to degrade American capabilities.

At the Space Symposium, locals were buzzing about the coming changes and how they could offer a financial boom in Colorado Springs.

Don Kidd, who heads the Southern Colorado Technology Alliance, said the Air Force push to get ideas from small, innovative companies means Pikes Peak region jobs in the future.

"It brings great promise for the companies that are here," he said. "It removes obstacles for them."

​Andy Merritt, who oversees defense programs for the Greater Colorado Springs Chamber of Commerce agreed.

"We have companies that should be competitive," Merritt said. "It's up to us as a community to make sure our companies can leverage their capabilities to get that work."

Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper went from booth to booth at the symposiums exhibit center on Wednesday touting how the outsized aerospace industry of his state can offer new solutions to the space worries of the Air Force.

Colorado is now the nation's No. 2 state for aerospace jobs per-capita behind California.

"I feel the momentum," Hickenlooper said afterward.

At the symposium, the Air Force did little to discourage the governor.

Air Force Materials Command Boss Gen. Ellen Palikowski on Thursday talked about how her agency, which spends as much as $60 billion per year to meet the Air Force's material needs, is looking to small businesses with an increasing share of that big bank account.

"Small business is extremely important to the country, when you look at where new and innovative ideas come from," said Palikowski.

Palikowski also said the Air Force is looking to increase the amount of cash it spends on space research.

With the Trump administration pledging an extra $54 billion in spending across the Pentagon in 2018, space could see a real cash infusion after years of belt-tightening under President Barack Obama.

Space Command also has a bigger voice at the Pentagon, with the Air Force announcement last week that it will dedicate a three-star general at the Pentagon to be a full-time cheerleader for space programs.

How any extra space dollars are spent will likely be defined by a newly-renamed center at Schriever Air Force Base in Colorado Springs.

The National Space Defense Center, now home to about 80 troops and civilian contractors, has run a series of war games to show leaders where American space efforts are lacking. That center is expected to grow to more than 200 workers in the coming months as it becomes the nation's hub for war plans in space.

All of it, from the money to the enhanced training, are aimed at a single goal, Raymond said. If a war extends into space, America must make sure it wins that war.

"We have got to make sure we get this right," he said.

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Contact Tom Roeder: 636-0240

Twitter: @xroederx