Congress Gives U.S. Air Force Half of T-Sat Budget Request

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The 2006 defense budget Congress sent to U.S. President George W. Bush in December gave the Pentagon only about half of the money it wanted for a new generation of laser-linked communications satellites.

In the report accompanying the 2006 Defense Appropriations Act, Congress also directed the U.S. Air Force to focus on maturing the needed technology for the program, the Transformational Satellite (T-Sat) Communications System, rather than pursuing it as a formal acquisition effort.

The Defense Appropriations Conference Report for 2006 also made $120 million of the $436 million in funding it provided for T-Sat contingent on the Defense Department ‘s completion of an analysis that examines whether additional satellites from other programs such as the Wideband Gapfiller or the Advanced Extra High Frequency (AEHF) satellites will be needed prior to the first T-Sat launch. The Air Force had requested $836 million for T-Sat in 2006.

The conference report directs the Air Force to focus the program on maturing the technology for key subsystems like the satellite’s laser communications payload. The 2005 budget included $467 million for the program.

“Transition to a formal acquisition program should be deferred until the technologies are mature and have been demonstrated in a relevant environment,” the conferees wrote.

Prior to the conference committee that met to iron out differences between the House and Senate versions of the Defense appropriations bill, the House had provided $436 million for the T-Sat program without fencing any of the funds in its version of the 2006 Defense Appropriations Act, which it passed in June. The Senate had recommended cutting $250 million from the budget request, and fencing an additional $150 million pending a study on the purchase of additional satellites before the first T-Sat launch.

The House approved the conference report Dec. 18, while the Senate approved it Dec. 21.

The Pentagon had expected the first T-Sat launch to take place in 2013 when it sent its 2006 budget request to Capitol Hill in February 2005.

The Air Force is hoping that features like laser cross links will help the T-Sat constellation go a long way towards meeting the military’s increasing thirst for bandwidth.

Teams led by Lockheed Martin Corp. of Bethesda, Md., and Boeing Co. of Chicago are competing for the T-Sat prime contract. The Air Force had been planning to award the T-Sat contract in late 2006 but is likely to delay that decision due to the reduction to the budget request.

However, the Air Force may go ahead with the award of the contract to build the ground equipment for the satellites, known as the T-Sat Mission Operations System, in early 2006, regardless of the funding situation, according to Lt. Gen. Michael Hamel, commander of the Air Force Space and Missile Systems Center in Los Angeles. Teams led by Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman Corp. of Los Angeles, and Raytheon Co. of Waltham, Mass., are competing for that work.

The conferees noted they support the T-Sat concept, but they also expressed concern that the Air Force is moving too quickly with the development of the satellites despite the relative technical immaturity of some key subsystems.

The conferees also indicated that the Pentagon appeared to have “prematurely ruled out” the possibility of increasing the number of AEHF and Wideband Gapfiller satellites it intends to buy and the potential for upgrading those satellites to allow more time for T-Sat’s development.

The Pentagon must submit a report that addresses whether additional copies of AEHF and Wideband Gapfiller satellites will be required, how many will be needed and what improvements could be made before Congress will release the fenced-off portion of the 2006 budget for T-Sat, according to the conference report.

If the study concludes that additional satellites are necessary, the $120 million could be used for that purpose.

Brett Lambert, managing partner of the Densmore Group, a defense consulting firm here, said the fact that the conferees fenced more funding than either the House or Senate had in its version of the defense appropriations bill is an indication of Congress’ growing frustration with the status of the military space acquisition portfolio.

“It’s a signal that your house is not in order and you don’t have a plan to get it in order,” Lambert said.

The appropriations conference report also finalized a $125 million reduction to the Air Force’s $228 million request for the Space Radar reconnaissance satellites that was included in both the House and Senate versions of the bill.

The conference report directed the Air Force to spend the 2006 funding on “maturing technologies, seeking out new technical breakthroughs, experimenting with existing radar assets (such as airborne surrogates), and developing critical ground processing capabilities instead of focusing so heavily on near-term satellite system development.”

Meanwhile, the conference report for the 2006 Defense Authorization Act, which passed the House on Dec. 19 and the Senate two days later, directs the secretary of defense to submit a report to Congress by Oct. 1 on the possibility of using the Space Radar satellites for non-military missions.

The Air Force had planned to begin launching the Space Radar satellites in 2015, although those plans may be in jeopardy due to the reduction to the 2006 budget request. The military envisions using the satellites to spot moving targets on the ground and provide high-resolution imagery regardless of time of day or weather conditions.

The authorization conference report directs the Pentagon to examine the feasibility of using the Space Radar satellites for providing mapping data of coastal regions and other areas to non-military users “for scientific and civil purposes.” The study should examine the process by which non-military users could communicate their requirements for the satellites to the Pentagon, and the cost of modifying the satellites and their ground equipment to meet those needs, according to the conference report.

K. Stuart Shea, chairman of the board of directors for the U.S. Geospatial Intelligence Foundation, said that finding additional uses for military systems can be beneficial so long as it does not disrupt the primary mission of the satellites.

Study of the issue is likely needed to examine whether dual use is appropriate for Space Radar as it has proven to be with systems like GPS, Shea said.

Inclusion of the language regarding Space Radar and non-military uses may have been an attempt by supporters of the embattled program on Capitol Hill to build justification to keep it going, Lambert said. However, he noted that the dual-use idea is a good one, as the satellites may be able to help locate natural resources like oil and minerals.

Modification to the design of the satellites and ground equipment is not likely necessary to meet civilian needs, but an office might be needed to review the data that is provided to non-military users to ensure that what is shared does not compromise national security, Lambert said.

Other studies called for in the authorization conference report include a strategy for monitoring objects on orbit that must be updated on a biannual basis, and a review of the Pentagon’s ability to protect its own space assets and negate enemy use of satellites. The latter study must be conducted by a defense agency other than the Air Force, according to the conference report.