COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo - The United States needs disruptive new technologies, new ways of acquiring equipment and bandwidth, and closer ties with global allies to stay ahead of growing challenges in space from China, Russia and others, the head of US Air Force Space Command told Reuters.
General John Hyten said the United States had been bracing for threats to its satellite systems for years, but continued anti-satellite testing by potential foes had fueled a fresh sense of urgency in both industry and government about the need to prepare to win a possible war in space.
"We have to figure out what we're going to do and how we're going to do it," Hyten said in an interview, warning that a virtual or physical war in space would be devastating to the global environment and economy.
"We're not going to be bested. We will not," he said.
Hyten and other leaders challenged business executives at the annual Space Symposium conference in Colorado Springs to develop ways to automate flight safety for rockets, set up a common ground system to track, communicate with and control satellites, and continue cutting costs of multibillion-dollar systems.
He said increasing competition and mounting budget pressures had already prompted big players like Lockheed Martin Corp, Boeing Co and Northrop Grumman Corp to lower costs, embrace emerging technologies such as 3D printing, and adopt commercial business practices.
The expected certification of privately-held launch provider Space Exploration Technologies Inc, or SpaceX, to compete for government satellite launches had also triggered "huge, positive changes" at United Launch Alliance, a joint venture owned by Lockheed and Boeing that has been the sole provider, he said.
But more work was needed, including new business models such as leasing equipment or paying companies like Intelsat Inc to operate satellites, to ensure delivery of equipment and services was on time and within budget, Hyten said.
"If they're going to stay competitive, they better figure out how to work in this future," Hyten said, adding that the Pentagon was done funding decade-long satellite programs that saw massive cost overruns and technology challenges.
The government would fund rigorous technology development efforts to reduce risks, and future contracts would likely be structured as fixed-price deals, he said.
Hyten said the Air Force was already providing limited funding for work on new digital payloads for the next generation of global positioning satellites (GPS), and planned similar efforts to develop a new wide field-of-view sensor for a follow-on missile warning satellite.
He also predicted a "fundamentally different" approach to an upcoming study of tactical communications needs that looked at leasing and other solutions instead just buying equipment.
Hyten declined to discuss offensive US capabilities, but said rapid advances in electronic warfare by potential foes meant the Air Force needed revolutionary, automated and adaptive systems for battle management and command and control of satellites.
A previously unreported five-page memorandum signed by Hyten in February mapped out long-term science and technology needs for space and cyberspace, saying it was imperative to deploy more capable equipment more rapidly and at far lower cost.
Air Force Space Command posted the memo on its website this week after Hyten's chief scientist, Merri Sanchez, spoke at the conference.
The memo listed key focus areas, including new visualization tools, quantum computing, secure communications, breakthrough technologies for launching satellites, data fusion, and systems that could predict and anticipate space and cyber attacks.
Hyten said the US Air Force also hoped to aggressively expand sales of US missile warning and communications satellites to close allies, since future conflicts in space would involve the same coalitions now used for air, sea and land wars.
Lockheed, Northrop and other companies say initial sales could be made to Britain, Australia, and possibly Japan, although it may take years to cement larger business deals.