Cancel NPOESS – Are We Serious?

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The United States must rethink the current plans to cancel or significantly restructure the National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System (NPOESS) program.

The case for canceling development programs for which there is no longer a requirement or that have declining relevancy is obvious. Cancellation of the Army’s advanced artillery program, Crusader, in 2002 is a good example; it was judged no longer relevant to future threats, and our military engagements since that time have validated the decision. Defense Secretary Robert Gates’ recent decision to forgo further production on the F-22 program is a slight variant of the relevancy standard. The nation needs to have state-of-the-art air superiority fighters, just not as large a force as was originally envisioned.

The case for canceling programs just because they are overrun or behind schedule, or are otherwise struggling to bring new requirements-driven capabilities into existence, is not so clear. Several years ago, the intelligence community canceled a major component of the Future Imagery Architecture (FIA) program. It was significantly overrun and behind schedule and was laboring under its challenges; the path ahead was not without significant risk. At the time of the cancellation, a senior government official with intimate knowledge and involvement stated that the nation could expect to spend $15 billion in its aftermath to gain the capability needed. In the intervening years, we have worked to recover with an expensive restart of the legacy imagery program, initiation of the Next Generation Electro-Optical (NGEO) imagery program, and purchases from commercial imagery providers. We are on a good path now, but at greater cost and on a later schedule than those pessimistically projected for FIA.

The FIA cancellation decision was made responsibly, with substantial input from knowledgeable experts and due deliberation. But it serves as an example of how the frustrations and pressures that inevitably arise around a struggling development program can precipitate a decision with expensive consequences. It is to our national credit that we have stayed the course on the Space Based Infrared System (SBIRS) program, even though it was a near carbon copy of the FIA situation, and the subsequent path forward has been painful. When we cancel programs for which there remain enduring needs and for which there are not good, cost-effective alternative paths forward, we run the risk of creating gaps in our capabilities, dissipating the domain knowledge that the government acquisition and industry teams have gained through painful sacrifice, and frequently spending more money for lesser capability on later schedules in the end. This result is not a good bargain for the nation and its taxpayers.

Which brings us back to NPOESS. While the program is not in breach of Nunn-McCurdy provisions for government program cost management, the Nunn-McCurdy questions are a useful way to probe a potential cancellation (or restructure) decision; they will be employed here, slightly paraphrased.

  • Are the NPOESS requirements and concept essential and valid?

As a keepsake from an intelligence community event some years ago, the author has a copy of a roll of Corona satellite imagery; it contains frame after frame — of clouds! These images bear witness to the challenges that confronted satellite imagery before the availability of high-quality weather information.

Millions of dollars for evacuations are at stake in accurately predicting landfall for tropical storms, to say nothing of the importance of good, current weather forecasting for military operations, in managing power generation, in providing disaster relief, in agriculture and in myriad other domains. And it is absolutely clear that we need the very best climate science that we can muster, informed by high-quality environmental sensing and modeling, to address climate change. A related issue is whether the Defense Department and civil missions should be done in a common system. Nearly all of our major space platforms carry multiple payloads, some with very diverse missions and sponsorships. The decision to combine missions in a single program includes balancing the development and integration of the first flight article, the so-called nonrecurring engineering, against the substantially reduced costs resulting from having fewer space platforms to produce, launch, support, etc., over subsequent missions. The requirements for environmental sensing and the NPOESS concept are essential and valid.

  • Are cost-effective alternatives to NPOESS available?

There are two Defense Metrological Satellite Program weather satellites that can be flown in partial satisfaction of NPOESS requirements over the next few years. There is also one NPOESS Preparatory Program satellite, which has a projected life of two years and will fly early models of some NPOESS payloads in 2011. The design, manufacturing and integration capabilities for these two programs have long been shut down, and the domain knowledge centers disbanded. New design, manufacturing and integration capabilities will have to be created and the appropriate domain knowledge redeveloped for whatever replaces NPOESS. The unquantified programmatic, budgetary and political risks inherent in striking out on some as-yet-undefined course are substantial. If there are two separate programs, then the nation will get to confront (and pay for) the resulting challenges twice. Various cost estimates for alternate approaches are floating around, but even those of the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), a vocal proponent for restructuring NPOESS, greatly exceed the costs-to-go for completing NPOESS (approximately $2.8 billion through the first two satellites). On the current well-defined plan, NPOESS will launch

in 2014. Given demonstrated recent performance on space program new starts, who would bet on replacement programs being executed in less than eight to 10 years at less than many billions of dollars? Proceeding with NPOESS is the most cost-effective approach available to satisfy the critically important NPOESS missions.

  • Are the NPOESS program plan and budget credible?

There is no argument that NPOESS has had a rocky road in its development. Its most significant issues have been in the sensing payloads, where the nation’s capabilities have been seriously eroded by the acquisition reform initiatives of the 1990s and declining space hardware production volumes. This situation has impacted U.S. space programs broadly: National Reconnaissance Office, Missile Defense Agency, Air Force, NASA, etc. Fortunately, most of our formerly troubled space programs are out of these woods, NPOESS included. While there is no such thing as a risk-free, ambitious space program, the hard, risky work on NPOESS is behind us. NPOESS has been reviewed multiple times by credentialed U.S. space community bodies who concur with this assessment. The NPOESS plan and budget are credible, certainly more so than those of any new start(s) would be.

  • Is the management structure for NPOESS up to the task?

We come now to the trickiest question. To begin, most of the original sensors were procured by the government and the contracts were effectively novated to the NPOESS prime contractor after selection. This means the prime contractor essentially had no voice in the original terms of those contracts — not the best basis on which to create a solid programmatic framework.

Next, NPOESS is managed through an Integrated Program Office under an executive committee composed of NOAA, NASA and the Defense Department. It is a poorly kept secret in the U.S. space community that the relationships in this triad have not been the best. Consistent with the axiom that “bad stuff flows downhill,” when customer leadership of a major program is not smoothly functioning, it is the program and the industrial partners who are most impacted, and blamed. Those close to NPOESS all have their lists of issues not well handled in the complex management and oversight structure of the program. It seems clear to all external observers that the administration must have a serious sit-down with the involved agencies and provide specific direction to clarify and simplify the NPOESS management structure.

NOAA has an important mission and an admirable record in executing it over the years. It is not, however, a center of excellence in space program procurement — it simply does too few space programs to make it worthwhile to commit its critical intellectual capital to this arcane domain. The prevailing sentiment among informed experts in the U.S. space community is that NOAA should accept a less-directive role in the execution of the space program procurement, adopting more the stance of the “customer” or the environmental sensing functional manager, as is the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency for satellite imagery in the intelligence community. NOAA could retain responsibility for the ground segments, and, as the NPOESS ground segment is essentially complete, could take over complete responsibility for it now.

Next, the relationship between the Defense Department and NASA in the conduct of the space procurement must be resolved. Given the criticality of satellite weather capability to important defense and intelligence missions, a credible case can be made that the Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center should be given the leadership role in NPOESS space procurement. This is a question that the administration should address in the context of the aforementioned sit-down on the program.

To close:

NPOESS will address important, enduring and unabated national security and environmental sensing requirements.

  • The early sensor development problems have been solved, and the NPOESS team is at the peak of its hard-won domain knowledge and experience.
  • Multiple in-depth reviews by credentialed U.S. space community bodies and individuals have confirmed that the risky elements of NPOESS are complete. What remains is to reap the benefits to be gained through cost-effective satisfaction of a wide range of weather and environmental sensing requirements in a single space program.
  • No credible alternatives to the program exist that can satisfy the NPOESS requirements at anything remotely close to the cost, schedule and risk remaining for NPOESS. The remaining work on the program is well understood, planned and budgeted appropriately and contains very little risk.
  • Canceling or dismantling the NPOESS program at this juncture would be a deplorable waste of U.S. intellectual and fiscal capital and would commit the nation to a riskier, costlier and longer path forward.
  • The administration must act to streamline the NPOESS management structure to ensure successful completion of this critical national program.
  • Some will argue that the administration’s 2011 budget submittal makes the NPOESS question moot. The nation and its taxpayers deserve better.

Alden Munson is a senior fellow and member of the Board of Regents at the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies. He formerly was deputy director of national intelligence for acquisition and technology, and an industry executive |and adviser.