Sustainment and the Space Superiority Mission

Sustainment and the Space Superiority Mission

Three Improvements for a Competitive Advantage
Apr 10, 2018


October 2017 marked a milestone in our nation’s long-running Space Surveillance Network (SSN): 35 years’ operational capability of the Ground-based Electro-Optical Deep Space Surveillance (GEODSS) system. The continuing value of this workhorse system, so critical to the family of ground-based radars and optical sensors that relentlessly track objects in space, is testimony to the resourcefulness and ingenuity of the U.S. Air Force Space Superiority Systems Directorate, which is responsible for its sustainment. 

Certainly, creating and maintaining effective, resilient space situational awareness (SSA) and space control capabilities is no small feat in a world where needs are growing faster than budgets; radical technological changes can happen overnight; and the domain of space is increasingly congested, contested, and competitive. Tomorrow’s space superiority sustainment practices could help secure the U.S. a competitive advantage by delivering three essential improvements: better prediction, an “enterprise” approach to portfolio management, and modernization strategies that squeeze more capacity from existing assets.

Fundamentally, system sustainment for the defense community is about ensuring that personnel in the field have the systems and tools they need, when they need them, so they can successfully accomplish their missions. Well-executed maintenance and upgrade plans, efficiently run parts depots, trained staff, and consistent preventive maintenance practices have gone a long way toward increasing the “up time” of space superiority systems, as well as minimizing costly emergency and large-scale repairs, and reducing overall system life-cycle costs. 

But these mission-critical systems, so important to protecting the security of our nation, could benefit from cutting-edge technologies applied to the business of system sustainment. For example, the potential now exists to significantly up the game in sustainment with predictive analytics generated through machine learning techniques. Machine learning refers to computers designed to emulate the human neural network and learn without being programmed for specific tasks. They can quickly sift through vast quantities of commercial data about system components, consider past and current performance as well as future needs, and then predict part failures and obsolescence that can be addressed before they occur. Relying on machines to do this can enable personnel to focus on innovation and the decision-making aspects of sustainment.


The systems that deliver the Air Force’s space superiority capabilities have been acquired over the course of many decades. As a result, they have been managed as disparate systems within the three separate portfolios of the Space Superiority Systems Directorate divisions. Tremendous efficiencies could be gained by applying an enterprise-style approach to at least each division’s portfolio, if not to the combined Space Superiority Systems portfolios. 

In its simplest form, this can look like “command media,” a collection of standard best practices that enterprises follow religiously to increase their efficiency, deliver consistent quality, and reduce risk. Even more beneficial would be a system-of-systems approach to sustainment. While the individual systems would still have the flexibility to use internal tools to run their element, there would be common tools as well as shared processes and a complementary approach to developing emerging capabilities that would streamline overall operations. 

To this end, space superiority portfolios should consider capitalizing on a common reference architecture as a way to guide the development of future system solutions. In addition to providing a common language among solution stakeholders, the reference architecture ensures a consistency in the implementation of technologies and provides a basis for validating solutions. From a system sustainment perspective, this equates to greater resiliency and tremendous gains in efficiency—and therefore cost savings—for everything from staff training to depot support.


Predicting the obsolescence of system components is certainly important, but overcoming it—and addressing future mission requirements as well—is a whole different ballgame. An original equipment manufacturer has a somewhat narrow view of system sustainment, largely focusing on available technology advancements to replace obsolete components with new ones available on the market. A good sustainment engineering team will approach system modernization from the standpoints of improving system performance and reliability, and reducing the time it takes to carry out repairs and component replacements. An excellent sustainment engineering team will understand the mission and expand this approach to also address changing mission needs by squeezing more capacity from existing systems.

Modernization of the Air Force’s GEODSS system and others, like the Perimeter Acquisition Radar Attack Characterization System (PARCS) and Eglin Air Force Base’s AN/FPS-85 phased array radar, demonstrate how the life of systems that are 30, 40, and even 50 years old can not only be effectively maintained, but also upgraded with very modest expenditures (compared to new developments) to increase capabilities and address changing mission needs without ever breaking the overall system architecture. It takes a team with a unique combination of mission knowledge, technology experience, and creative problem-solving skills to do this type of work successfully.

In an article for Defense One, Dr. Heather Wilson, secretary of the U.S. Air Force, recently stated: “The extent to which space is vital to the military cannot be overstated. From intelligence gleaned by satellites to technology that guides remotely piloted aircraft and runs our global intelligence network, space allows us to fight smarter, faster, and with much greater understanding of the battlefield.” This, and the growing potential of space becoming a battleground, makes it essential that we strive for a more resilient SSN enterprise—one that both reliably protects our assets and actively exploits their full potential. 

Chris Forseth is vice president and general manager of Harris’ Space Superiority business unit. Harris provides the full spectrum of enterprise architecture solutions needed to gain, maintain, and exploit space superiority.

Photo credit: Jake Pairsh

Click here to view our entire publication on Charting a Course to Resiliency in Space.