US Air Force looking to revamp, cut costs of space programs

CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida (REUTERS) - To tackle a rising demand for space-based surveillance in an era of flat budgets, the US military is looking at smaller satellites, cheaper rockets and partnerships, the head of Air Force Space Command said on Tuesday.

"Status quo is just not going to work for us," General William Shelton said in a speech to the National Space Club Florida Committee in Cape Canaveral.

The Pentagon is requesting US$496 billion (S$628 billion) for the 2015 fiscal year that begins Oct 1.

The spending plan, which is essentially flat for the third consecutive year, cancels two Lockheed Martin Corp Advanced Extremely High Frequency Satellites, saving $2.1 billion, and defers two Lockheed next-generation Global Positioning System satellites, among other cuts.

Shelton said the budget crunch comes as more countries have the ability to access space, not all for peaceful purposes.

Eleven nations now have indigenous launch capabilities.

"There's a threat to our on-orbit assets. We know a lot of nations out there are developing counter-space capabilities ... It is scary what some nations are about now," Shelton said.

A less overt but more widespread threat comes from an increasing amount of manmade debris circling Earth.

The Air Force currently is tracking about 23,000 objects circling Earth, only about 1,000 of which are operational spacecraft.

The rest are defunct satellites, spent rocket boosters and other space junk.

"An object that's maybe just 2 to 3 cm in size at orbital velocity represents a hazard to fragile spacecraft," he said.

Concurrently, the Air Force is considering downsizing its weather satellites and other spacecraft, placing sensors on commercial satellites and partnering with other countries in an attempt to cut costs.

The Air Force also intends to allow other companies to compete for some of its satellite-launching business.

Currently, United Launch Alliance, a partnership of Lockheed Martin and Boeing Co, launches nearly all of the US military spacecraft.

Space Exploration Technologies, owned and operated by Tesla Motors Inc Chief Executive Officer Elon Musk, is among the firms vying to break ULA's monopoly.

A series of studies on revamping the Air Force's space programs is under way.

Shelton expects the first reports this summer.

"I personally believe that these alternative architectures, which are much more responsive to the threat that we see coming down ... is the direction we need to go. But we also need to complete these studies to make sure," Shelton said.

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