The Evolution of USAF’s Operations in Space

Lt. Gen. David Thompson, vice commander of Air Force Space Command, engages with industry partners in Colorado Springs, Colo., April 17, 2018. Air Force photo by Dave Grim.

Lt. Gen. David Thompson, the vice commander of Air Force Space Command, is all in on the idea of launching a giant network of satellites into low Earth orbit—an idea under debate within the Department of Defense for how realistically useful it may be and for which missions.

“What we have to understand are two things: how close to a true operationally capable and effective service can these provide, … and then how do they integrate with the rest of the architecture?” Thompson said Monday at New America and Arizona State University’s Future Security Forum in Washington, D.C. “There are pieces of the architecture today, one being missile warning/missile defense, that has both elements of the classic architecture, which is geosynchronous, and elements of the new proliferated constellations.”

A proliferated LEO constellation, the first undertaking of DOD’s new Space Development Agency, will certainly be part of the Air Force’s future space architecture, he said. What remains to be seen is what roles it will play and how soon.

“We need to make smart bets, which means we need to invest appropriately, we need to track appropriately,” he said of growth in the commercial space sector, which is expected to play a part in the future LEO constellation. Thompson also noted the Air Force’s continued investment in the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s “Blackjack” program, which aims to demonstrate such a network.

Carissa Christensen, chief executive officer of Bryce Space and Technology, pointed out during the panel discussion that in reality, commercial companies backed by venture funding fail 75 percent of the time and won’t be able to put up tens of thousands of small satellites.

The Air Force also needs to come to terms with the fact that it could lose several of the satellites that make up such a constellation and adjust its acquisition process to reflect that, Wallis Laughrey, Raytheon’s vice president of space systems, added. Changes are underway on the industry side to meet the challenge of rapidly producing spacecraft, he said, but other roadblocks remain.

“It’s difficult because the supply base just is not there for electronics parts,” Laughrey said. “Once we can get to that, get true leverage of what’s in the supply base on the electronics side, it will open the door for things like higher levels of autonomy on spacecraft. … We’re talking about 2030 but these are things that we have to do now to even deploy these systems by 2030.”

As space becomes more crowded and the Air Force’s operations in orbit evolve, Thompson said the service will continue to make providing GPS navigation data and communications to troops on the ground its top priority.

“Providing those capabilities to the rest of the joint force will always remain job one for space professionals,” he said. “For too many years, I think, the space community, at least inside the Department of Defense, has been a little too insular. If it doesn’t matter on the surface of the Earth, it really doesn’t matter in space from [a military] perspective.”

Thompson added the revived US Space Command will include a coalition space force component that offers a fully integrated, multinational approach to space threats.