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Pentagon’s Top Space Contractor Recognizes Imperative To Change

Rick Ambrose, executive vice president of Denver-based Lockheed Martin Space Systems, said military space budgets “have come back to Earth” after a decade of solid growth. Credit: AIAA photo

NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. — Amid a growing wave of sentiment that the U.S. military must adopt new ways of operating in space to cope with new threats and declining budgets, a top executive with Lockheed Martin, the Pentagon’s biggest space hardware contractor, said the company must change as well.

Rick Ambrose, executive vice president of Denver-based Lockheed Martin Space Systems, said Jan. 14 that military space budgets “have come back to Earth” after a decade of solid growth. “It’s very clear that government and industry alike will have to change. And we must change,” he said.

But he reiterated a message company officials have been delivering for the last year: When it comes to the types of space capabilities that are needed in the emerging environment, one size does not fit all. In other words, the disaggregation concept now in vogue among senior U.S. Air Force space leaders, which entails dispersing space capabilities currently concentrated on large platforms, is not a panacea.

Lockheed Martin is the prime contractor on many of the Air Force’s large satellite systems for missions including missile warning, navigation and communications. But the long-term sustainability of these types of programs has increasingly come into question, in part because of budgetary pressures. 

Frank Kendall, the Pentagon’s chief acquisition officer, said Jan. 15 that procurement and research and development accounts across the Defense Department will take an especially heavy hit during upcoming budget cycles as the military looks to reduce costs without adjusting military pay or shrinking the size of its workforce, two of its major expenses.

Meanwhile, senior Pentagon officials warn that satellites are increasingly vulnerable to unspecified threats and stress the need to make U.S. military constellations more resilient, meaning less vulnerable to various types of attack. 

As the main industrial stakeholder in the status quo, Lockheed Martin must walk a fine line between protecting its franchise while seeking to demonstrate that it can adapt to a future architecture where key capabilities are dispersed on smaller satellites and even hosted aboard commercial platforms. 

In a speech here at a science and technology forum hosted by the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, Ambrose noted that Lockheed Martin has built more than 300 payloads and 150 small satellites. 

“We’ll keep working to help our customers meet their vision for the future of space and to balance competing priorities in a smart and sustainable way. We know there will have to be tradeoffs,” Ambrose said. “We’re determined to get them right.”

As recently as November, a Lockheed Martin executive summarized an internal resiliency study that concluded that it takes larger numbers of satellites than commonly assumed to truly reduce constellation vulnerability to likely threats. The upshot: Disaggregation will not necessarily save money.

Ambrose said the company has developed a methodology for assessing constellation resiliency that it has been tinkering with for the past 18 months.

“For decades we have honed our skill in understanding how to quantify the balance of capability and cost,” Ambrose said. “But up until now there’s been no systematic, data-driven method for measuring a system’s resiliency.”

Gen. William Shelton, commander of Air Force Space Command, has said resiliency must be a hallmark of any future space programs

Lockheed’s new tool takes into account hazards including space debris, space weather and cyberattacks and would help decision-makers analyze how particular satellite architectures would withstand those threats and at what cost. It is not a completely objective measure and requires value judgements from the customer, Ambrose acknowledged.

The aim, Ambrose told SpaceNews, is to get the Air Force “the attributes they’re looking for.”

Air Force leaders have had several briefings with Lockheed Martin on the subject and appear to have warmed to the idea,  Ambrose said.

“Different missions will have different sweet spots, whether we’re talking about missile warning or communications or precision navigation,” Ambrose said. “We need to look at each case with an open mind, and apply the best analytical tools.”

Lockheed Martin also is looking to trim costs and is considering measures that include substantially reducing its factory floor space by 2016.

Lockheed Martin recently announced that it is closing the Space Systems division’s operation in Newtown, Pa., and shuttering four other buildings at the division’s Sunnyvale, Calif., facility by 2015 as part of a corporate-wide cost cutting effort.

“We have to have a faster pace of change,” Ambrose said. But “the last thing you want do is whack costs at will. … We want to be as deliberate as we can with change.”

 

Follow Mike on Twitter: @Gruss_SN

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