05 April 2012

Smaller, Cheaper, Faster, Better

Some parts of the US military have adopted the slogan, "smaller cheaper faster better." The USAF spacecraft pictured below is a good example. It was cheaper and smaller to build and launch than the US space shuttle. It can be kept in space -- without astronauts -- for months or years at a time, and can be readied for re-launch on short notice, just weeks after landing.
Wired Danger Room

The “smaller-is-better” space revolution wasn’t inevitable. It resulted from a complex interplay of politics and economics, plus a chain of engineering crises that claimed some careers and even a few lives. What follows is a brief recent history of America’s space force from the end of the Cold War to today, with a glimpse into the future as old spacecraft waste away and smaller, quicker, cheaper and more robotic systems take their place.

...Pete Worden, a mischievous Michigander now in his mid-60s, achieved the rank of brigadier general in Air Force Space Command, where he helped oversee satellite development and operations. In the early-’90s he co-led a two-year probe mission costing just $80 million that seemed to confirm the presence of water on the moon.

In the ’90s and early 2000s, Worden argued that smaller, cheaper spacecraft, developed quickly and launched frequently, were the key to a better, more survivable space arsenal — one that could be quickly tailored to counter pop-up threats and had enough self-contained pieces to absorb attacks from a power such as China.

Instead of maintaining today’s arsenal of some 200 pricey, military-grade satellites, U.S. space agencies should operate potentially thousands of smaller, cheaper spacecraft in a vast, constantly shifting constellation, reformers such as Worden claim. Each craft in this new space force should be just good enough to achieve its mission — no better — and sourced from the lowest bidder. No single satellite should be so valuable that the U.S. can’t afford to lose it.

Inspired by Worden’s moon probe, in 1992 NASA initiated the “Faster, Better, Cheaper” program, which aimed to build and deploy spacecraft in just a year or two instead of decades, and at a cost of just a couple hundred million bucks apiece instead of billions. The space agency was still investing heavily in pricey, old-style equipment. But there was enough skepticism within NASA to fuel support for Faster, Better, Cheaper.

Between ’92 and ’99, NASA launched 16 Faster, Better, Cheaper missions, including five Mars probes and a couple space telescopes. Ten of the speedy, inexpensive missions succeeded. Six failed owing to engineering errors or communications mix-ups.

...With its roots in Worden’s moon probe and NASA’s Faster, Better, Cheaper effort, New Space has made a deep impression on a U.S. space force reeling from its recent failures and China’s rapid rise. In the past few years, the Pentagon in particular has moved to institutionalize Worden’s vision.

In 2007, the Air Force established the Operationally Responsive Space office in New Mexico. Spending just $100 million a year for five years, the new organization built and launched four quick-and-dirty satellites. The office’s biggest successes was ORS-1, a surveillance satellite roughly the size of a compact car, compared to the semi-truck-size orbital spies that were standard before. To keep down costs, the Air Force fitted the new sat with the same camera as the U-2 spy plane. Launched in 2011, ORS-1 began peering down on Afghanistan in January.

...The flying branch has also embraced air-breathing “pseudolites” — that is, high-altitude drones, planes or even balloons that can perform many of the same functions of satellites but more cheaply. As they can maneuver more quickly, they’re also less vulnerable to Chinese rockets. In recent years EQ-4 Global Hawk drones and even KC-135 tankers fitted with radio relays have begun filling in for multi-billion-dollar communications satellites. Bottom line: the future of the U.S. orbital arsenal lies in “militarily responsive space-launch supplemented with air-breathers,” Larry Wortzel, an adviser to the U.S. government on space issues, tells Danger Room.

... _Danger Room
The USAF space branch is not the only part of the US military that is adapting the smaller, cheaper, faster, better motto. But it takes time for the centuries-old vision of huge and vastly expensive systems to die out in an organisation as tradition bound as a national military.

Under US Defense Secretary Rumsfeld, all branches of the military services were tasked with the mission of streamlining units and taskforces. Smaller but more accurate bombs and artillery shells, more automation and unmanned systems, all of these were part of the Rumsfeld vision. And naturally, the entrenched vision battled against the Rumsfeld vision. But the laws of economics in a welfare state -- where a defense budget must battle for its existence against an exponentially expanding entitlement budget and a rapidly growing interest on the national debt -- will eventually force the issue. Militaries of welfare states must become more agile and adaptable or they will crumble under their own unwieldy weight.

And eventually, of course, the US military will be forced to drastically reduce its overseas commitments. It is not a question of if, but of when. Smaller, cheaper, faster, better. There will be a lot of surprises unpacked from those four simple words.


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