A dramatic reduction in launch costs and the integration of ever advancing commercial space and allied space capabilities have led to a greater acceptance of risk by U.S. Space Force in developing new systems, a top U.S. Space Force official said on May 18.
“In the early 2000s, the cost of launch could easily exceed $400 million per launch,” Lt. Gen. Michael Guetlein, head of Space Systems Command, told a Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) forum on May 18. “A satellite capability, like missile warning, was a ‘no fail’ mission. We had to have the ‘eyes in the sky’ to understand what the Russians were up to from a nuclear posture [standpoint] and to make sure we weren’t surprised over the poles so we really couldn’t take a lot of risk going along the way.”
“The effect that had was we kept aggregating more and more capabilities onto a single satellite because I wanted to maximize the bang I got for the buck from the launch vehicle but also to make sure we had that unblinking ‘eye in the sky,'” Guetlein said. “That resulted in a satellite that, in some cases, cost in excess of $2 billion for one satellite that was built for a benign environment that was uncontested. That’s an enormous amount of national treasure sitting in one basket. That was really driven by the technology at the time.”

Launch providers, including marquee commercial provider SpaceX, “have pushed the cost of [military] launch down in the sub-$100 million per launch,” Guetlein said. “The satellite manufacturers have pushed the level of technology that I can put on a small satellite significantly higher so I no longer have to aggregate all those exquisite capabilities onto one satellite. I can now disaggregate across the constellation. That allows me to take more risk because now, in a disaggregaged constellation, I can stomach one or two failures and still have a robust constellation through proliferation, redundancy, etc.”

DoD leaders have been pushing to increase the resilience of space systems, in part by moving away from the acquisition of a limited number of large, costly systems–“big, fat, juicy targets” in the words of retired Vice Chief of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Air Force Gen. John Hyten.

Frank Calvelli, the assistant secretary of the Air Force for space acquisition and integration, has said that boosting space system resilience will be a priority (Defense Daily, Feb. 17).

“When you bring that [resilience] into the acquisition side where you’re enabled…with the Middle Tier Acquisition authorities, because the risk is not so high on that one vehicle failing, I can spread that acquisition out through cost and schedule and actually move a lot faster and put 70 percent level capabilities on multiple platforms and aggregate them, rather than having to have 100 percent capabilities on one platform,” Guetlein said on May 18.