Defense Authorization Panels Put Brakes on Satellite Efforts

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Brushing aside the recent claim by a senior U.S. Air Force officer that all is well with the military space acquisition system, a congressional defense oversight committee made good on threats to rein in the service’s top two satellite development programs.

In marking up their version of the 2006 Defense Authorization Act, members of the House Armed Services strategic forces subcommittee sent a strong message that they beg to beg to differ with the April 5 assertion by Gen. Lance Lord, commander of Air Force Space Command, that the space acquisition system is not broken and that those who think otherwise should “get over it.”

The panel slashed the Air Force’s funding request for the Space Radar surveillance satellites and the Transformational Satellite Communications System (T-Sat), directing the service to restructure both efforts. The panel recommended providing $436 million of the $836 million request for T-Sat and $100 million of the $226 million request for the Space Radar.

U.S. Rep. Silvestre Reyes (Texas), the senior Democrat on the subcommittee, said panel members reached bipartisan agreement that the T-Sat and Space Radar efforts appear “poised to experience the same problems that bedeviled other space programs.”

Reyes said he hoped both Space Radar and T-Sat could be restructured and put on stable paths for the future. However, the Space Radar appears vulnerable to outright cancellation by “other committees,” he said. That likely was a reference to the House and Senate Appropriations Committees, which have slashed Space Radar funding requests in past years.

In marking up its version of the defense authorization bill May 12, the Senate Armed Services Committee was a bit more generous with the purse strings than its House counterpart, but still recommended putting the brakes on T-Sat. The committee recommended providing $636 million for the T-Sat program and allocating $100 million to begin buying parts for a fourth Advanced Extremely High Frequency (EHF) communications satellite. Current Air Force plans call for buying three satellites for the Advanced EHF system, the predecessor to T-Sat.

The Senate panel recommended cutting the Space Radar request by $75 million, and directed the Air Force to provide a more detailed rationale for a two-satellite demonstration of the concept that the service hopes to launch in 2008.

The Air Force plans to begin launching the T-Sat and Space Radar systems in 2013 and 2015, respectively.

Loren Thompson, chief operating officer of the Lexington Institute, a think tank here, said the authorization marks suggest that the Air Force will not be able to come close to meeting those timetables. “These moves signal that the Pentagon has done a lousy selling job towards transformational space programs,” he said.

The Space Radar system is intended to provide high-resolution imagery to intelligence users, detect moving targets for the military, and make detailed terrain maps for both camps, regardless of time of day or weather conditions.

When the Pentagon submitted its 2005 funding request last year, the Air Force was planning a nine-satellite constellation with an estimated price tag of $34 billion that would launch beginning in 2012. But Congress provided just a third of the requested funding and called a halt to the satellite acquisition.

The Air Force response, unveiled just prior to the release of the 2006 defense budget request, was to add the subscale demonstration mission and defer the target launch date of the operational satellites until 2015. The Space Radar program office, meanwhile, was moved from Los Angeles to Chantilly, Va., to enable its manager — a brigadier general who has since been nominated for promotion in rank — to interact more closely with lawmakers.

Following the House markup , staffers said the latest Space Radar plans — including the 2008 demonstration — are unacceptable to the subcommittee, and that the Air Force needs to go back to the drawing board.

The Senate Armed Services Committee, on the other hand, believes the Air Force is moving in the right direction on the program , a Senate aide said. Nonetheless, committee members want a detailed report on what the Air Force hopes to achieve with the demonstration, and on the likely cost of an operational constellation, the Senate said.

Committee members also want the Air Force to conduct an aerial demonstration of the sensor technology in 2006, the aide said.

The House and Senate authorization panels are in closer alignment on the T-Sat program. Congress expressed concern about the pace of the program last year, and trimmed T-Sat’s $775 million, 2005 budget request to $475 million . At the time, the Air Force was planning to launch the first satellite in 2012.

Rep. Terry Everett (R-Ala.), chairman of the House strategic forces subcommittee, noted during the markup session that while new systems typically require one or two “miracles” in technology innovation, T-Sat appears to need eight. The breakthroughs are required to make improvements in security, accommodate additional users, boost bandwidth, and to provide satellite access to troops that are on the move, according to a congressional aide.

Everett questioned why the Air Force is pursuing such an aggressive schedule with T-Sat given that it will not begin launching its Advanced EHF constellation until 2008.

The Advanced EHF program has run into considerable difficulty, and the satellites’ schedule and cost projections have grown well beyond initial estimates. House and Senate staffers say that does not bode well for T-Sat development.

Jim Lewis, director of technology policy for the Center for Strategic and International Studies, another think tank here, said Congress may be reluctant in the current budget environment to fund programs that promise new capabilities but carry significant technological risk. But he warned against being gun-shy when it comes to complex new technologies: “If you’re too risk adverse, you just end up building yesterday’s weapons.”

Maj. Karen Finn, a spokeswoman for the Air Force, said she could not comment May 13 on the potential impact to the T-Sat and Space Radar programs of the markup actions.