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News | Nov. 3, 2009

More Satellites Needed To Launch on Short Notice

By John T. Bennet Defense News

Omaha, Neb. - U.S. Strategic Command chief Gen. Kevin Chilton said Nov. 3 he would give up new, state-of-the-art space systems to swell the military's fleet of satellites that could be launched at a moment's notice.

The U.S military's space community has become focused on managing programs and budgets "to capability gaps" rather than ensuring there are ample space systems "in the barn" ready to be placed on orbit, Chilton said in a speech here that in places was critical of the military's space community's recent performance.

"Space capabilities are more important" to the U.S. military and "our everyday way of life than they were 10 years ago, but we have fallen into a mind-set of gap management," Chilton said during a Space Foundation-sponsored conference.

That means the military is focused on developing next-generation systems but has no bullpen stocked with GPS, advanced communications or missile early warning satellites ready to hit orbit quickly. And if it did, Chilton said, getting an Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle to take one into space would take "up to two years. "

As a tense silence gripped the room, the StratCom chief said he wants 2010 "to be a turning point in our business. "

Meantime, Chilton went through his StratCom Christmas wish list, saying U.S. combatant commanders are like kids at the holiday because they get to tell others what new toys they want. The service chiefs and Pentagon brass have to worry about budgets and "spreadsheets that balance," but not combatant commanders.

Chilton wants to field more tools that will give U.S. officials and war fighters a better idea of what systems are orbiting Earth. Defense officials and analysts are becoming increasingly concerned that too little is known about what potential foes have placed into space - as well as how much "space debris" is threatening to damage American orbiters.

To build that better picture, Chilton wants more sensors. He said Pentagon officials this year have realized the importance of greater space situational awareness, and have put more funds for this domain into the Pentagon's long-term spending plan.


U.S. officials know of 20,000 pieces of space debris, he said, adding models show there are likely "orders of magnitude" more.

In his call for more sensors, he said the Pentagon needs to add more circling the Earth's southern hemisphere, for a variety of reasons related to space situational awareness and mission requirements.

The Cold War required most U.S. orbits to be over the northern part of the planet, but things have changed, he said.

To add sensing systems, "this will take keeping some existing programs going" while also collaborating more with allies who have sensors gathering data that would help the U.S. military," Chilton said.

He also said that as the military designs and fields more sensors for missile defense missions, "we should write requirements to support space situational awareness" and the development of systems for that mission.

Chilton also wants to beef up the number of intelligence analysts examining potential foes' space development efforts. The intel community slashed the number of analysts tracking enemies' work on things like satellites and rockets.

He wants that to change, "so we know all about these systems before they are launched. "

In the 1980s, the U.S. Air Force's tactical fighter community learned a great deal about what kinds of next-generation jets it needed - and the technical hurdles that had to be cleared to get them - from simulation. Chilton wants the space community to use the same approach to drive work on next-generation space platforms.