But, the Army's quest for low-cost, responsive space support cannot be realized without inexpensive launch. Swords is designed to address that. In this program, the Army hopes to reduce the price to $1.8 million per launch, including range cost, by making use of commercial grade materials, not aerospace-grade components. And, the design will employ a Tridyne pressure-fed engine, bypassing the need for a turbopump. The concept calls for a “ship-and-shoot” capability that could operate from nearly anywhere with a concrete slab, and the mobile launcher is designed to be transportable by a C-130 cargo hauler.
Ideally, the Army would like a small arsenal of these satellites and launchers in the event of a pop-up crisis, such as the Libya operation in 2011, or an outage of an existing satellite in orbit.
In years past, the Army eschewed such concepts because the price of entry to space was high; but a reduced price could allow for the service to view satellites in low Earth orbit much like an extension of their tactical unmanned aircraft fleet, which can relay communications or collect intelligence.
Meanwhile, the Air Force has proposed closing its Operationally Responsive Space (ORS) office, which was formed at the behest of a Congress eager to prompt the service to develop smaller satellites and launchers on significantly reduced timelines and cost. Lawmakers are now discussing the proposal in the fiscal 2013 budget. Lt. Gen. John Hyten, vice chief of Air Force Space Command, says the service has infused the precepts of ORS into its satellite program offices, eliminating the need for a separate organization to champion them. “There will be a role for smaller satellites” that can be launched more quickly, he tells Aviation Week during an interview here. Procurement mishaps in developing such constellations as the Lockheed Martin Advanced Extremely High Frequency (AEHF) protected satcom system and Space-Based Infrared System (Sbirs) ballistic missile detector have given the service a “black eye,” he says. “We have to prove ourselves in the programs we have” before earning the credibility to move forward with major new concepts.
In the meantime, however, the Air Force is studying how to implement a “disaggregation” strategy for its constellations, a concept that calls for spreading resources to reduce the reliance on a few high-value satellites in a constellation. This is useful in the event of an attack on space assets—kinetic or otherwise—and would also act as insurance against an in-orbit malfunction.
The nearest-term constellation suitable for disaggregation is likely the Milstar/AEHF protected communications system. The systems onboard the AEHF satellites now being lofted 23,000 mi. into geosynchronous orbit are all designed to the highest standards of surviving the fallout of a nuclear explosion. Hyten notes that special operators are “carrying the nuclear survivability requirement” as they use large antennas to tap into the system (owing to the high satellite altitude) for communications in the Middle East, for example. If smaller satellites suitable for covert communications were lofted into a lower orbit, these soldiers could carry smaller radios and still achieve the service they need.
“AEHF [satellites] don't have to be as big or as complicated as they are today,” Hyten says. Through a disaggregation strategy, nuclear-hardened, command-and-control payloads could still reside on buses in geosynchronous orbit, while more tactical, augmenting payloads could orbit independently, he says.
Disaggregation is also being eyed for other satellite communications constellations as well as for the missile-warning system now in orbit. The Air Force is already committed to buying six AEHF and Sbirs satellites, so decisions on shifting to a new constellation are not needed immediately. Most likely, these decisions will be made in about two years, when the Pentagon assembles the Fiscal 2016 budget.
Hyten also notes that disaggregation could be employed to field some navigation payloads to reduce the instances of reduced GPS signals for soldiers in large cities or mountainous regions, areas that lack a line of sight to four GPS satellites simultaneously.