Space Command commander: Despite budget bill, tough choices still ahead
Space Command's top general says a congressional budget accord reached last week brings hope but not relief to military planners.
Air Force Gen. William Shelton said without an appropriations bill, which carves out how much his Peterson Air Force Base command can spend, he's still hamstrung in planning.
"At the end of the day, the National Defense Authorization Act is just authorization. We still need an appropriations bill," he said.
The future of the appropriations bill remains in doubt because of congressional wrangling.
The command oversees the military's constellation of satellites, including the Global Positioning System that's relied on by civilians and industry for navigation and timing.
The command is also ramping up a newer role to guide Air Force computer warfare efforts.
Shelton has spent the past year on a budgetary high wire. Congressional discord led to automatic budget cuts called sequestration, which led to more than 100 job cuts at the command and drove leaders to cut funding for systems including the "Space Fence" surveillance system.
Space command also cut maintenance programs and contracts on its way to about $1 billion in 2013,nearly a 10 percent decrease in spending.
The budget that landed on the president's desk Thursday could spare Space Command from deeper cuts in 2014.
But hard choices continue in 2014.
"We are going to take significant risk in weapons system sustainment," Shelton said.
In layman's terms, Shelton is hoping the tires on the car will last another summer. He's delaying planned maintenance on ground stations and equipment in a bid to save cash, but at the same time pushing a wave of expenses into the future.
"Those bills will come due in 2015," Shelton said.
The command, which has 42,000 airmen, civilians and contract workers, is also scrutinizing its roster, with an eye to cutting payroll.
The Air Force is looking at cutting 25,000 airmen by 2018.
Space command will first look for volunteers who are eligible for early retirement and early separation.
"On the back side of voluntary measures will be involuntary measures to get us down to the force size we need to be," Shelton said.
"We will make a concerted deliberation in the involuntary process to keep the best people."
Number crunching also drove the command to shut down its "Space Fence" radar system, which had sites across the U.S. staring at the sky.
Shelton said the 1960s system was outmoded and is diverting money to a replacement. The new space fence will be built on a Pacific Ocean atoll, now planned to be in operation by 2018.
Beyond budget issues, the command is also looking to reinvent itself for future wars.
"How do we provide this capability and do it faster and cheaper with space and cyberspace?" Shelton said.
The command is examining the "architecture" of satellites.
Those flying now, from communications birds to spacecraft to detect missile launches, are large and complex. They're expensive to launch and difficult to replace if damaged by the rigors of orbit or enemy attack.
One example is the Advanced Extremely High Frequency communications satellite, six of which are orbiting to provide global military communications.
"If you happen to lose one that creates a huge hole," Shelton said.
Commanders are pondering smaller, less capable satellites that can be launched in larger numbers, leaving spares in orbit to replace those that fail.
Shelton said he envisions future wars as short, unpredictable battles that will require flexibility in space systems.
"I look at most of our conflicts in the future as 'come as you are' conflicts and not long conflicts," Shelton said.
The general is eschewing the long-held desire for rockets that can "launch on demand." He said that system won't respond fast enough to needs on a battlefield and costs too much.
But Shelton's push for cheaper satellites isn't part of a plan to weaken the military.
The U.S. enjoys a significant lead in space capabilities and is looking to keep it.
"I don't think we're willing to fall back," Shelton said.
"I don't think there's an appetite for parity."