Hyten: U.S. needs plan to modernize space launch infrastructure

As commercial launch activity picks, the capacity shortage will get worse, warned Gen. John Hyten. “We have to move into a 21st century range so these new capabilities can come on.”

HUNTSVILLE, Ala. — The U.S. government continues to pour money into aging launch ranges and delaying much needed modernization, Air Force Gen. John Hyten told an industry conference on Tuesday.

As commander of U.S. Strategic Command, Hyten is not responsible for launch ranges but he does have strong feelings on the matter, he said at the Space & Missile Defense Symposium. His comments came in response to a question from the audience about the rise of commercial space launch and the crunch faced by government agencies when they try to book ranges for test programs.

Hyten said it is a serious problem because most of the ranges where launches are conducted — Kennedy Space Center and Cape Canaveral Air Force Station (Eastern Range) in Florida; Vandenberg Air Force Base (Western Range) in California, and the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico — are operating inefficiently due to their outdated technology.

“We have 20th century ranges and a 21st century industry that is coming on those ranges with new capabilities,” Hyten said. Many ranges are not equipped to handle modern space launch technologies like GPS metric tracking and autonomous flight termination systems. “We’re still structured in this old range construct,” said Hyten.

GPS metric tracking of rockets is less costly than radar, for example. Autonomous flight termination systems allow unmanned range safety operations, eliminating the cost and burden of ground-based tracking equipment.

Until they are modernized, operations at ranges will be restricted. And as commercial launch activity picks, the capacity shortage will get worse. “We have to move into a 21st century range so these new capabilities can come on,” said Hyten.

The Air Force and Army have wanted to update ranges for many years but there are issues that get in the way such as the necessity to ensure Cold War-era systems — like the Navy’s submarine launched Trident missile — get tested every year. “These are old systems that were not built with GPS metric tracking or don’t have an autonomous flight termination system package attached to it,” Hyten said. “So you have to maintain this giant range infrastructure that is hugely expensive and it’s also making it difficult for other people to get on.”

At some point someone has to decide it’s time to pull the plug and invest in the future, he said. “We as a nation have to step back and say ‘What is the range that we want and what is it going to look like in 2030, 2040, 2050?’ and start building that.”

Instead, the mindset is more like, “We have these old things that are going to be around for a long time,” said Hyten. There are ways to modernize that do not require massive overhauls. “You can build strap-on autonomous flight termination systems, as we did it for the Minuteman missile in 2004,” he said. “We know how to do this stuff. But we have to think about the range that we want to operate in the 21st century.”

Outdated ranges are symptomatic of the broader culture that makes it a priority to keep systems in service for decades. “If we built this in 1972 and it’s still around, we’ll maintain it,” Hyten said. “At some point we have to say ‘no we won’t.’ We’re going to spend $10 million, $20 million or $50 million to move that capability into the modern range so we can free it up for the commercial sector.”

This is not a trivial matter, he warned. If the commercial sector is not supported, it will fund private ranges and launching government satellites could become way more expensive. “If you look at the satellite processing facilities at Vandenberg and Patrick Air Force Base, that’s where the big money is.”