The SBIRS GEO-1 satellite. (Lockheed Martin)
HUNTSVILLE, ALABAMA — The Pentagon needs to fundamentally change the way it buys satellites in an effort to lower costs as US defense spending contracts, a top Air Force general said.
The military oftentimes spends between $3 billion and $5 billion to design, develop and test new satellites, Lt. Gen. John Hyten, vice commander of Air Force Space Command, said. Those so-called non-recurring engineering costs come before DoD buys an operational satellite.
"We should not have to spend billions of dollars in non-recurring engineering … to build these kinds of satellites," Hyten said Tuesday while speaking at the annual Space and Missile Defense Symposium.
At the same time, Hyten — who is scheduled to pin on a fourth star on Friday when he becomes the commander of Space Command — said that although the Air Force and industry have effectively brought down the costs of new satellites, much of the architecture is dated and "the world has changed."
"The industry … knows how to build those satellites today," he said. "We have to define our requirements correctly.
"They should not push the envelope too much," Hyten said. "Any place where we push the envelope, we have to retire that technology risk before we actually start the production program — so that when we start the production program, we know what it's going to cost, and we're going to pay that amount and we're not going to pay anymore."
The general said that although the Pentagon does not face a threat of sequestration in 2015, looming budget caps in 2016 pose challenges for Space Command.
"16 scares the heck out of me," Hyten told a small group of reporters after his speech. "Our [operations and maintenance funding] is very different in our command. It's bad on the aviation side, but they can ground squadrons. We can't."
The problem, the general said, is that the entire military relies on satellites routinely. The command's GPS satellites are used by the military, commercial industry and civilians globally.
"Everything we put forth is critical to some military mission," he said.
Many cuts offered up by the command when sequestration hit in 2013 were rejected because of the negative operational impact, Hyten said. Back then, the command made cuts to contractor support and weapon system sustainment.
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