WASHINGTON — The U.S. Space Force is a year behind on its most recent effort to fully decommission its legacy space object catalog and replace it with a modernized command and control capability designed to track space launches and monitor on-orbit debris.
The service had expected to replace its 1970s-era Space Defense Operations Center, known as SPADOC, by the end of 2022 with a new Space Command and Control system designed to improve the its ability to analyze, process and deliver data from its network of ground and space-based sensors that track on-orbit activity. But Col. Chris Kadala, senior materiel leader for operational command and control, told C4ISRNET the new capability won’t be ready until late this year.
“The timeline for the delivery of capability sufficient to decommission the SPADOC system has moved from the end of 2022 to no earlier than [the] fourth quarter [of] calendar year 2023,” Kadala said in a Jan. 27 email.
The Space C2 system is comprised of several hardware and software development efforts, and the transition from SPADOC to the more modernized architecture is dependent on the initial delivery of a data processing and analysis tool called the Advanced Tracking and Launch Analysis System. The program will deliver additional capability over time, but its baseline requirements are meant to replace the legacy system’s functionality.
The Space Force awarded L3Harris a $53 million contract in 2018 to develop ATLAS and in 2022 issued a $49 million follow-on contract to continue development. The company did not respond by press time to a request for comment.
In a Feb. 1 interview, the program’s Materiel Leader Lt. Col. Edward Jones said the delay in delivering ATLAS is largely due to systems engineering challenges. Because the broader Space C2 program is made up of multiple capabilities, the program team had been focused in different areas rather than on the goal of completing the SPADOC transition.
“We have a lot of different capability, we have a requirements set that’s very broad,” Jones told C4ISRNET. “That allows us to do whatever is needed. Unfortunately, that can sometimes cause delays. If you have infinite scope, you can sometimes get distracted with doing lower priority things.”
The setback follows a series of SPADOC modernization attempts that date back as far as the 1980s. The service has fielded some upgrades in that time, but most did not deliver on original capability, cost and schedule estimates. The most recent effort, the Joint Space Operations Center Mission System, was designed in 2009 to field in three phases. The program ultimately fielded only one of those increments, and the Air Force halted development in 2018 due to a three-year schedule delay and a $139 million cost overage.
Jones said the service’s many failed attempts to develop a new space command and control capability are evidence of the difficulty that comes with replacing a system that was designed to manage a much smaller amount of data than what the Space Force captures today through the radars and sensors that make up its Space Surveillance Network.
“This is a really tough challenge,” Jones said. “Folks have been trying to decommission SPADOC for a couple of decades now. The catalog has doubled in the last few years, the number of launches are growing exponentially, the number of payloads that are coming off of those rockets . . .there’s just a lot more to track.”
‘Long-standing troubled programs’
That growing catalog of space objects and the increased activity in space makes fielding a more modern and capable system even more important to Space Force leadership. Frank Calvelli, the service’s top acquisition executive, labeled ATLAS as one of the service’s “long-standing troubled programs” during a Jan. 24 speech at the National Security Space Association conference. Delivering the capability in 2023 is a top priority for the service, he said.
Lt. Gen. John Shaw, deputy commander of U.S. Space Command, told reporters Jan. 24 that SPACECOM operators -- who will benefit from ATLAS -- are ready to have the more automated capability on hand.
“ATLAS is the next generation of capability,” he said. “It’ll help us do our job better and more efficiently, so we just want that capability.”
The Space C2 program has implemented some changes to get after the management and technical issues and stick to its goal of delivering ATLAS by the end of the year, Jones said. Last spring, the program established a systems engineering and integration team to help define the requirements and make a plan for transitioning off of SPADOC. It also shifted personnel from other parts of the program to focus on ATLAS.
The program has also begun operational testing, which it’s completing in increments. The first of those test events occurred in November, and the second is happening this month. The service has submitted a test plan to the Pentagon’s director of operational test and evaluation and expects that to be approved by the end of the month.
“We’re pretty proud of the work that we’ve done,” Jones said. “I think we are very wide eyed in terms of how much determination and grit across all of our teams this is going to take. And we’re relying on that right now.”
Courtney Albon is C4ISRNET’s space and emerging technology reporter. She has covered the U.S. military since 2012, with a focus on the Air Force and Space Force. She has reported on some of the Defense Department’s most significant acquisition, budget and policy challenges.